Actions

Work Header

And In The Darkness, I Found You

Chapter Text

Haise would say he’s a pretty capable person in general.

He doesn’t freak out over everything and could think things through before making decisions and all that. He listens to others before giving his own opinions. He does his job as efficiently as possible. He faces various ghouls without thinking he could die at one wrong move. He gives up trying to wake Saiko up when they’re almost late for work.

Yep. He’s doing pretty good.

So he has no idea why the higher-ups would assign him a ‘caretaker’ of sorts out of the blue to watch over him and help him handle his squad. He already had Akira-san’s and Arima-san’s support! The team’s finally starting to work together! He’s getting on just fine!

..Is it because he lost control in that one battle with Serpent?

Haise had always known the CCG were keeping a close eye on him because of who he is - what he is. He knows his existence is like a double-edged sword to the commission. As long as CCG could keep him under their leash, he would grow to be one of the strongest weapon they ever had. As long as he doesn’t let his ghoul side consume him, Haise would be fine.

As long as he doesn’t accept the voice in his head, he’d be fine.

But to be so utterly bold about it - Haise actually feels offended by the turn of events. There couldn’t have been a clearer way to tell him that his standards are dropping and that he’s beginning to turn incompetent. Part of Haise wants to punch a wall (or even better - the pudgy face of one of his superiors). He’s trying his best, for god’s sake! Isn’t it a little too early to judge him? His squad had barely formed like, a year ago! Of course he’s having trouble keeping things together when half of the kids assigned to him had issues!

Haise breathes a heavy sigh as he trudges on, shoving his hands even deeper into the pockets of his trench coat. Actually, scratch that - it’s getting way too warm for a coat. He stops stark in the middle of the walkway and angrily removes the garment before messily folding it and slipping it over his arm. He wouldn’t usually opt to disrupt the flow of people around him like that, but he’s just too mad to care (the place’s practically empty, anyway). Really, all he wants to do at the moment was stomp home, take a shower, fetch a good book, and shut himself in his room until the next morning.

Because he has no idea what his anger would make him do if he allows it to burst forth.

The chateau’s empty when he gets home. The rest of his squad are still out investigating the Nutcracker case with Juuzou’s; Haise should’ve been with them if he hadn’t been summoned to HQ just for them to indirectly tell him he sucked. Heaving another sigh, Haise closes the door behind him and trudges inside, his wave of fury dissipating as suddenly as it had appeared and leaving him with the unmistakable feeling of misery and self-disappointment.

Maybe he really is starting to become a failure.

xXx

The Quinx were taught to always be ready to deal with unexpected situations ever since their days at the Academy. Forgot something at home? Compromise. Late for work? Find a good excuse that doesn’t involve oversleeping. Investigation going slow? Apologize when confronted and try harder. An aggressive ghoul appearing out of nowhere? Kick their ass. They were taught that almost every situation would have a simple - albeit temporary - solution as long as they thought of it properly.

But when they return home after yet another day of fruitless investigation to find their mentor holed up in his room with a note stuck on his door, they’re completely at loss. Rank 1 Sasaki isn’t exactly the type of person who would deliberately lock himself up in his room and refuse to see anyone until breakfast the following morning. As far as they know, he’s the kind who’d usually tell himself not to be a selfish prick and shove his own feelings aside for the sake of not bothering others. 

“Even Sassan pulls a Saiko every once in a while, huh?” Shirazu muses aloud as he sinks down onto the sofa, crossing his legs before opening the can of juice he’d bought from a vending machine on the way back. He takes a swig of the drink before continuing. “Wonder what’s wrong.”

“Maybe he’s just tired?” Mutsuki says doubtfully, hanging his coat on the stand by the entryway. He knows Haise would never let such a pathetic excuse affect his usual enthusiasm. “What do you guys want for dinner tonight? I’ll try to whip something up.”

“The last time you tried to cook by yourself, all of us wondered if our diets were finally limited to human meat only,” Shirazu blatantly points out, and Mutsuki blanches because it’s true. He’s good at helping out but terrible at the actual cooking, apparently. “Well, it’s fine if you only cook for Uri’s share. The rest of us should just settle for some instant noodles.”

If Urie heard him past the music that’s blaring from his earphones, he’s not letting on. Shirazu rolls his eyes and mutters something along the lines of ‘cocky brat’ under his breath, taking yet another gulp of juice. Meanwhile, Saiko’s already heading back to her room, declaring that she has a boss to beat and that she’ll survive on the snacks she had stashed up under her bed. Knowing there’s no way to change her mind since a boss fight was involved, the boys let her be.

“Still, I’m pretty worried about sensei,” Mutsuki speaks up after a moment of quietness, furrowing his brow. He stands on tiptoes to reach for their stock of instant noodles in the top cabinet. “What if something bad happened?”

“Like you said - he’s probably exhausted,” Shirazu tells him, walking over and chucking his empty can into the bin meant for recyclable products. He then casually reaches above the shorter boy and helps him retrieve the cup noodles. “Or maybe he found this really, really godawesome book that doesn’t let him put it down until he finishes it.”

“That.. actually makes sense.” The tension in Mutsuki’s shoulders subsides by the slightest. He stares thoughtfully at the plastic container in his hands. Yeah, that could be it. The only things that could affect their mentor are books, and perhaps some good coffee. He’s just being paranoid. Sensei is fine.

The sudden ringing of the doorbell startles them out of their mechanical silence a little while later, causing Shirazu to nearly drop the jug of hot water he’s holding. The ginger turns and sees that Urie’s still hogging the couch with his eyes closed and earphones on. Since he’s the only one who has nothing to do and happens to be closest to the door, Shirazu yells at him to go get it.  

“Squad leader’s orders!” he adds when the other boy shoots him a death glare for disturbing him. He returns the glare with a series of dirty looks of his own, relentlessly making rude gestures until Urie’s forced to do as he say in order to stop seeing his face and suppress the urge to murder him on the spot. Barely masking his annoyance, Urie rips the buds from his ears and stalks to the front door. It only occurs to him then that whoever’s out there had been repeatedly pressing the bell all this while like it’s nobody’s business. If it’s not someone important, he swears internally to himself, I’m slamming the door in his face.

As it turns out, it’s a stranger - a young man about their age. His bleached blond hair is cut short enough to spike naturally, and he wears a rumpled suit with a crooked necktie under his investigator’s coat. Set down by his feet is a thin briefcase Urie recognizes as a Quinque.

“Phew! For a second there I was afraid there’s no one at home!” the stranger exclaims in relief the moment he sees the teen’s unimpressed face. His grin seems almost too wide and obnoxious. Wordlessly, Urie moves to close the door.

“H-Hey, wait!” The blond manages to jam his foot between the wooden panel and its frame before he’s shut out. “At least listen to what I have to say first!”

Urie clicks his tongue, clearly pissed by now. He really hates dealing with overly bright and persistent people.

“Did something happen? I heard a loud noise,” Mutsuki calls out as he walks over to check on them. The blond spots him, and actually smiles even wider.

“Oh, man - thank god there’s actually someone else in this house other than Mr. Gloomy,” he breathes, and Urie feels a vein throbbing at his temple. Mr. Gloomy? “Hey, can you like, get over here and open the door again for me so we can have a proper conversation? I promise I’m not a suspicious guy or anything.”

That’s the single most suspicious thing a stranger could say, but for some reason, Mutsuki has a feeling that he isn’t lying. He’s learnt to trust his instincts when it comes to stuff like this. So he quietly tells Urie to go back inside while he handles this.

“So uhh,” the blond starts once things had settled down, scratching his cheek with a finger. “I know it’s a little late to ask, but this is the residence of the Quinx squad under Rank 1 Sasaki Haise, correct?”

Mutsuki nods, and the young man proceeds to search for something in his pockets.

“Actually,” he says, pulling out a crumpled piece of paper from the back of his pants. “I’m assigned to join you guys in two days but-“

“I’m sorry - what?” Taken aback, Mutsuki blinks blankly at the revelation. The blonde smiles sheepishly.

“It was Akira-san’s idea for me to come earlier to you know, pick my room and settle down and all that,” he says, attempting to smoothen the piece of paper he’s holding but not being very successful. He finally gives up and simply hands it over. “Here’s a note from her, by the way. I have the official documents if you guys need them but they’re stashed somewhere in my bag and.. yeahh.”

Mutsuki scans the note and recognizes the penmanship as one indeed belonging to his superior. But why a new recruit so suddenly?

 “You think you can bring me to  your mentor?” the young man asks, and though his eagerness something to be wary of, Mutsuki doesn’t feel any sense of danger coming from him. At all. In fact, the more he looks at him, the more he could almost see amiability oozing from his pores. 

“I could, but I’m afraid sensei’s not exactly in the mood to meet people right now?” Mutsuki says, glancing nervously to the side. Wait, he shouldn’t have said that, should he? The stranger simply raises an eyebrow.

“Even when it has something to do with work?” he inquires, and the boy guesses he’s right. Sasaki’s the kind of person who puts work before everything.

“Alright, then,” Mutsuki decides, stepping aside and holding the door open to make way. “Come inside first. I’ll take you to him.”

“Awesome,” the blond cheers, and disappears for a brief moment before materializing again with a huge backpack on his shoulders. He looks like a very lost hiker, Mutsuki thinks, amused. He shuts the door and turns the lock once he’s in the entryway.

“Come to think of it, I didn’t quite catch your name,” he starts as the blond struggles to remove his sneakers without being toppled over by the sheer weight of his luggage. Isn’t wearing something other than dress shoes when he’s in uniform against the investigator dress code?

“Nagachika,” the blond answers, placing his footwear neatly aside when he’d finally taken them off. “Nagachika Hideyoshi.”

“Nagachika-san,” Mutsuki echoes, and he couldn’t help marveling at the way the smile comes so easily to the newcomer’s lips.

“Yep. That’s me,” he affirms cheerfully, adjusting the straps of his bag. “Now let’s find someplace I can put this down before I sign myself in.”

xXx

It’s big and possibly even a tad bit intimidating, but the place looks as cozy as it can be.

Definitely a nice contrast to the little apartment he used to live in.

It might not show on his face, but Hide’s actually incredibly nervous about meeting him again. Sure, he’d been watching over him behind the scenes all this while and the reason he’s still being kept alive by the CCG was solely for this purpose and stuff - but still. He’s both physically and mentally unprepared. Everything’s too sudden! They could’ve at least given him a little more time to get his act together! What if he fails to hold himself back and end up hugging him? What if he bursts into tears like the pathetic guy he is? What if he accidentally says something he shouldn’t?

What if he triggers one of those monster headaches Akira had told him about?

Whoa, calm down me, Hide chides himself inwardly, taking in deep breathes while trying not to be too obvious about it. The last one’s probably impossible since he’s already come so far. The higher-ups wouldn’t have allowed Arima to make him do this if it meant endangering their precious test subjects. After everything that’d happened to his best friend, Hide wants to laugh at the bitter irony of the current situation. Kaneki had suffered so much alone because he’d been turned into a monster against his will, and now there’s a bunch of kids actually volunteering to have those wretched organs implanted into their body in return for an admittedly large sum of money.

But who is he to complain, really. It’s not like he’s in a better position than any of them.

At least everyone seems nice, he thinks, breaking out of his reverie just in time to avoid tripping on the first step of stairs. Except that guy with the undercut and dorito eyes - he looks like someone who never really got over his emo phase. Well, whatever.

“Hey, I know this is a weird request,” Hide begins, turning to face the boy with the eyepatch whom he’d come to identify as Tooru. “But you think I can go meet him alone?”

Because I don’t want to hurt you guys or embarrass myself if something happens.

“I suppose it’s fine,” Tooru says, clearly finding it strange but not questioning. “His room’s the second one on the left.”

“Go continue your dinner before it gets cold,” Hide nods and tells him, flashing him one last grin before making his way upstairs. He clutches the paper file containing the necessary documents to prove his legitimateness close to his chest, trying his hardest to stay calm. He mustn’t heck up. He mustn’t heck up. He reaches the top floor and blows out a long breath. Don’t heck up and ruin everything you’ve worked for so far.

He heads toward the designated door, and stops in front of it for a moment to gather his wits. He then puts on his best mask of obliviousness, and knocks.

His heart’s banging so loudly against his ribcage that he’s sure it could be heard all the way down the street. His ears eventually detect the sound of the shuffling of feet, and before he even has time for second thoughts, the door cracks open, and there he is.

There he is.

Hide hasn’t seen him face to face since forever and he looks so different up close, yet there’s no mistake that he’s him. His bright grey eyes, the set of his lips, the way he looks at him with utter surprise, even the parting of his hair. Hide recognizes them all.

And wow, his heart hurts more than it should.

Hide takes a step back, and bends into a formal bow. “Rank 1 Investigator, Nagachika Hideyoshi reporting for duty!”

The look on Kaneki’s face is priceless.

No- not Kaneki. He’s Haise now. Sasaki Haise. He has to remember.

“H-Huh?” Haise stands there gaping at him in bewilderment, and it takes Hide’s everything to contain the giggles that are threatening to burst forth despite the situation. When he shifts to stand normally again, he sees, with a certain sense of delight, that the former’s once snow-white hair is now black at the roots (plus it’s so endearingly mussed up, gosh). That’s great. Even though he knows this already, it’s still a relief. It’s slowly growing back to how it should be.

“I’m the new guy those old dudes at HQ probably told you about,” Hide explains at once, hoping with all his might that his grin doesn’t falter. “I know I’m early and all - but here are the documents.”

Still looking pretty baffled, Haise takes the file from his outstretched hands and goes over the papers inside without any further questions. In the mean time, Hide’s tempted to kick himself because that’s the lamest move he’d ever pulled in his life. He could’ve at least given him a longer explanation! What happened to his usual smoothness when he needs them? Sheesh.

“So you’re starting your stay here tonight?” Haise asks after a moment, peering at him past lowered lashes. Hide abruptly and unnecessarily realizes that he’s become impossibly more attractive since the last time he saw him.

“Yeah,” he clears his throat and manages to answer without stammering or doing anything equally mortifying. “I’m sorry it’s so sudden, but it’s under Akira-san’s orders. ‘Go on ahead and fit in first; and surprise them while you’re at it,’ she said - or something like that. I’ve got a note she wrote with one of your guys downstairs if you want to confirm or you can call her if it’s not too late and-” He pauses, noticing that the other boy’s staring at him strangely. “Something wrong?”

“Ah, no,” Haise says quickly, blinking out of his daze. He busies himself by arranging the documents back into the file to avoid eye contact. “I just thought you’d be a different sort of person..”

“You were expecting some grumpy old guy to move in a watch you like a hawk?” Hide asks, and chuckles good-naturedly when Haise flinches before nodding abashedly in admittance. Hide doesn’t point out how his companion had unconsciously touched his chin with his left hand when he answered him the first time. “Well, too bad for you, then. It’s just me.”

“I’m glad, actually,” Haise tells him, tentatively looking up again to offer a smile of his own. Hide feels his breathing hitch and hurriedly works to control the emotions that are rapidly welling up at the sight of that expression. It’s been so long since he saw him smile like that; with so much genuineness, so much care freeness. Haise, blissfully unaware of the blond’s inner turmoil, reaches to scratch the back of his head. “Honestly, I’m not sure if I can handle another cranky person in the house.”

“The one you already have looks enough of a handful as he is,” Hide folds his arms and agrees drily, and Haise gives him yet another queer look.

“You’re not as bad as I initially thought you’d be, are you?” he muses, his smile turning lopsided. He tucks the file under his arm and holds out his hand. “I’m Sasaki Haise. Rank 1 Investigator and mentor of the Quinx. Welcome to the squad, Nagachika-kun.”

“I’ll be in your care.” Hide shakes his hand, allowing himself to enjoy the warmth of it a split second longer than he should before letting go. “And just Hide’s fine.”

“Hide,” Haise corrects himself, meeting his gaze. Hide searches for signs of recognition or even pain in those bright grey eyes, but fortunately (or perhaps not; he can’t exactly decide), he doesn’t find any.

“Why don’t I show you around? I’ll introduce you to the rest of the kids while I’m at it,” Haise suggests next, and to Hide’s slight surprise, he proceeds to dart back inside. Hide catches a glimpse of several bookshelves filled to the brim with reading materials before Haise reappears empty handed and obscures his view by shutting the door. He’s still a first-class bookworm even after everything, huh?

“The ‘kids’?” Hide repeats as he falls in step by the other boy’s side, thoroughly amused. “Some of them look even older than me!”

“Give it a week and you’ll understand,” Haise assures, his tone light and a whole lot more relaxed compared to the one he was using around fifteen minutes ago. Hide figures he’d probably been worrying over little things again like what kind of person the newcomer would be, if he would report his every mistake to the superiors, et cetera.

 “Anyway, the bedrooms are all on this floor. I’m afraid you’ll have to use the guest room downstairs since all of them have currently been taken,” Haise continues as they walk towards the staircase. He motions to a room at the end of the hallway. “The one in there right now is Rank 3 Yonebayashi Saiko,” he says, and Hide swears he hears some rhythmic beeping coming from where he’s indicating. “I think I heard her say something about a boss battle or something like that earlier, so you’ll only be able to meet her tomorrow morning if you’re lucky.”

Hide whistles lowly at the new information. “She’s a gamer?”

“The other’s call her a shut in.” Haise frowns slightly. “Which, actually pretty much sums up her character.”

“And you guys never actually attempted dragging her out?” Hide asks further, the habitual grin already creeping to his face. This is getting interesting. “Or you’ve all just given up?”

“Shirazu-kun’s renewing his efforts lately after being made squad leader, so at least she’s moving around again these days,” Haise says, taking his first step down the stairs. “Oh, and Rank 3 Shirazu Ginshi’s the one who looks like a thug at first glance but-”

“Haise.”

When the boy in question stops in his tracks and turns to him at the sound of his name, Hide registers his mistake at once, and nearly - nearly - splutters.

“S-Sorry!” He apologizes, feeling his face heating up without his consent. That wasn’t supposed to happen! “I was just wondering if it’s alright to call you that and-“

He trails off when Haise tilts his head slightly to the side and shoots him a bemusedly skeptical look. “Had you been listening to me for the past five minutes?”

“Shirazu Ginshi’s the scary-looking guy with pointy teeth, right?”

He stares at him for about a minute longer before finally shrugging dismissively. “I don’t mind.”

Really, if Hide could melt into the wall he would’ve done so already. He’s been nothing but a wreck since he met the guy! He runs his hand across his face and takes in a couple of deep breaths to clear his thoughts. Be natural, Hids. Be natural.

Thankfully, he manages to do just that for the rest of the tour around the chateau. Hide hadn’t really realized it earlier with his mind running wild and all, but the place is seriously huge. He figures the entrance hall alone is bigger than the apartment he’d previously been staying in. Twisted as they are, the CCG sure knew how to pamper a group of youngsters - even if they are mere tools created for their own benefit.

“Guys, I’d like you to meet the newest member of our team,” Haise announces once they’re at the dining area in the lower floor where the rest of the team were still hanging around. Two curious faces plus a very indifferent one turns towards them upon their arrival. Once their attention are settled on him, Hide takes a customary bow.

“I’m Nagachika Hideyoshi!” he introduces himself, straightening up to briefly meet each of their gazes. “A Rank 1 Investigator who specializes more on intel rather than actual fighting, but I can use a Quinque when I have to! I like American music and making the people I care for happy! My best qualities are my positivity and determination.” He pauses, and grins mischievously.

“Oh, and I guess ya’ll can call me Dad!”

Chapter Text

Fortunately, they did not call him that. Dad.

Oh, wow.

Right up until the point when Hide finally conked out in the room Haise had assigned him to after taking a bath, the rest of the night had been in a state of great excitement; with Mutsuki promptly freaking out for talking so casually to a superior while Shirazu tried to convince him to not commit seppuku. Urie seemed to quickly find the situation too much to bear and walked off without a word. Hide did not help much by simply guffawing at the Quinx’s reaction to his proposal.

Still, it’s been a while since their household felt so lively. Haise sighs a tired but fond breath to himself as he retires into his room once more. He walks over to his bed to fetch his abandoned spectacles and slip them on before picking up the novel he’d been reading to properly put it aside. He then settles down in front of his desk, and reaches for the file containing the information to Hide’s profile.

Honestly speaking, Haise still finds Hide sort of a mystery. He’d practically just popped into their lives and made himself right at home without a problem. The stranger thing is that Haise lets him. Or more accurately, he feels that he wants him here. He still hasn’t gotten the full details to know if Hide’s transfer is temporary or permanent, but for some reason, he feels that he doesn’t want him to leave any time soon. It’s as if he’s someone he’d always been unconsciously awaiting, someone that just fits perfectly into one of the many holes in his current life.   

Haise pulls out the first paper and scans the contents. Nagachika Hideyoshi, 22 years old. Huh. They’re the same age. He sure doesn’t look like it. Haise’s pretty sure the blond would protest if he tells him, but Hide’s appearance makes him seem a little younger than he really is - about the same age with the Quinx. He puts the thought away and continues going over the contents. Height, weight, address, contact numbers - nothing out of the ordinary, really. Nothing to answer the questions Haise wants but doesn’t dare and doesn’t know how to ask.

Haise’s positive he’d hidden it in time before Hide saw it, but his first glance at the blond had given him an odd pang of recognition that he couldn’t quite explain. He’d wanted to laugh and cry and scream all at once, but thankfully, he’d managed to control himself before any of that happened. He doesn’t know how effective his act at the beginning had been, though. If there’s one thing Haise’s aware of, it’s that Hide’s a lot more intelligent that he’d let on.

Luckily for him, the whirlwind of emotions subsided as the night wore on; only to be replaced by a certain warmth in his chest. While watching him interact and fit in with the rest of the gang earlier at an incredibly rapid pace, Haise had, for a reason unfathomable to him, compared Hide to the sun. It could’ve been his bright smile, his blonde hair. His overflowing enthusiasm and his wild laughter. Haise doesn’t really know.

The dream he has that night doesn’t make things any less confusing. Haise’s standing there again; in a room made entirely of checkered tiles with him facing a void of utter nothingness. He’s behind him, that’s a given. He always is. Haise braces himself for the usual taunts, the usual hands that roamed his back, chest, neck and arms and basically tend to be a little too touchy for his liking. He clenches his fists, bites his lip, shuts his eyes, and waits.

He hears him walking over; his slow, deliberate footsteps echoing throughout the emptiness of the chamber. The clinking of chains that trails after his every movement unsettles him every time. Haise senses him coming to a stop right behind him. He tenses up, catching his breath when he feels him leaning his forehead against his back.

“Why?”

It’s three in the morning, and Haise wakes up with tears in his eyes.

xXx

The sun has not even peeked out of the horizon when Urie’s alarm clock goes off.

The dark-haired boy wakes quickly and dresses quickly, his movements as fluid and silent as a predator’s. He has to be quick, and he has to be quiet. His appointment isn’t until much later, but he figures avoiding his team would be the best course of action. Rank 1 Sasaki would ask too many useless questions and Shirazu would make too much of a fuss if they find out beforehand. Urie doesn’t need their concern and comments. He knows what he’s doing.

He allows himself to take the slightest comfort in the silence of the chateau when he slips out of his room and sneaks to the front door. The investigation on the Nutcracker and the necessity to run around every day had left his rest of the squad exhausted, and he knows they’ve all eventually come to an unspoken mutual agreement to rise no earlier than six o’clock in the morning. They’ll still be snoring and drooling onto their pillows by the time he’s gone.

 “Hmm? What are you doing going out this early?”

Urie’s just finished buttoning his coat when he abruptly registers his presence. He takes a moment to calm the spike in his heartbeat before turning to face the blond who’d just entered the foyer,  gritting his teeth in irritation. He hadn’t foreseen this. It was a miscalculation on his part. He’d carelessly ticked the newcomer off as another person who’d valued his sleep by judging him solely based on appearance. This is going to be bothersome.

“I could say the same to you,” Urie starts, his tone even more stoic than usual. He earns himself a skeptical look from Hide.

“Not telling me, huh?” he says without sounding the least impressed, crossing his arms and leaning sideways against the wall. Urie stares back, unwavering. Who does this bastard think he is and what right does he thinks he has to judge him? “Well, wherever you go isn’t my business at the moment, but you better be ready to explain some things to your mentor if he finds you missing later.” Wait, is he on to him? “And if it makes you feel any better, I was about to take a pee.”

From the way he chooses his words (with the exception of the last sentence), Urie gets the feeling he’s already starting to connect the dots even though he’d just moved in literally a few hours ago and knew next to nothing about the entire household. Since he’s assigned here, he’s probably aware of the experiments on the Quinx. But Urie isn’t going to let him stop him now. He can tell all the tales he wants and suck it up to Sasaki later. It’ll be too late for them to change his mind by then, anyway.

“Hey,” Hide speaks up just as the other boy’s about to don his earphones and exit the house. Urie doesn’t know why, but he stops to regard him, and he’s greeted with one of Hide’s blinding smiles.

“Let’s introduce some songs to each other next time.”

Urie turns around, and steps outside.

xXx

“Sassan, Urie’s gone missing!”

The first thought that crosses Haise’s mind is that it’s way too early for this. God forbid, these troublesome kids will seriously be the end of him one day. Haise glances over his shoulder to meet Shirazu’s panicked-but-also-very-angry expression. “Have you tried searching everywhere?”

“Even the attic that we didn’t know existed until fifteen minutes ago!”

Haise exhales a weary breath. He has swallowed his pride a depressing number of times before, but he doesn’t know if he can file a missing child report to the CCG without dying a little inside. He scoops up the omelet he’s cooking from the pan with a spatula and carefully places it onto a plate. It’s about time for Shirazu and Mutsuki to take a break and settle down for breakfast. The two of them had been running around in search of Urie ever since they woke up. Haise figures he should take their place and attempt to find the guy one last time before he actually makes the report.

“How are you guys so spirited even in the morning?”

Haise’s pulling the straps of his apron over his head when he hears Hide’s voice. He turns to see the blond making his way into the dining area, still dressed in what he guessed is his sleepwear. That shirt’s too big and faded to be used for anything other than that. Instead of the stereotypical habit of scratching his chest or the back of his head, Hide has one hand relieving the itch on his butt while he yawns enormously into the other. Haise makes a mental note to remind him to wash his hands before he eats later.

“Good morning, Hide,” Haise greets, and Hide’s response is a muffled reply. Haise fails to suppress a smile at his demeanor. “We’re not this noisy on a daily basis, but apparently Urie-kun’s disappeared.”

“I saw him earlier when I needed to use the loo.” Hide yawns yet again, his calm manner a stark contrast to that of the other three. “He was clearly going somewhere, but he wasn’t specific.”

“That stupid Cookie,” Shirazu grumbles into his breakfast. “How dare he goes off without saying anything and getting all of us worked up like-“ He stops short, perking up. “I think your phone’s ringing, Sassan.”

With a yelp, Haise abandons his apron on the back of an empty chair and dashes to his room to fetch the device. People rarely contacted him at this hour of the day, and while he’d usually keep it within reach just in case anyway, he’d admittedly forgotten about it that morning (it still happens sometimes - he occasionally forgets that he owns a cellphone, silly him). The rest of the squad watches as he speeds towards the foyer and vanishes from view. It’s hard to judge whether he managed to answer it in time, but they figure he could always call back if it ever comes to that.

“Oh, man. Did Haise cook all those?” Hide exclaims in awe, glancing at the table as he passes it on the way to the sink. He quickly cleans his hands before walking over and settling down on an unoccupied seat, a filled plate already placed before him. “It smells gorgeous!”

“Help yourself out,” Mutsuki tells him, smiling politely. He still appears slightly nervous and fidgety, but at least he’s not being overly formal like Hide had feared. “Saiko-chan’s probably skipping out on breakfast again, so that’s yours.”

Hide picks up a fork and scoops some egg into his mouth, his features lighting up at once. “It’s eggcellent.”

“I’m glad it’s up to your eggspectations,” Haise says, making a reappearance in the room and appreciating the pun while Mutsuki and Shirazu try their hardest not to cringe. He approaches the group and takes a seat at the table. “I was worried if my food would suit your tastes.”

To prove him wrong entirely, Hide does the amazing feat of stuffing his mouth with the contents of his plate, and gives him a thumbs up. Haise prays he doesn’t end up choking.

“Who was it just now?” Shirazu inquires once the tension of watching Hide swallow his food without blocking a pipe has passed. Haise’s gaze lingers on the blond just a moment longer to make sure he’s really alright before turning to face the squad leader.

“Someone from the Medical Department,” he answers, and frowns when he’s once again dawned by the strangeness of it all. “They told me that Urie-kun’s going to be hospitalized for a few days and asked me to excuse him from his duties until he’s well enough to come back.”

“Is he going to be alright? What happened?” Mutsuki asks in concern, and Haise could only shrug helplessly.

“I’ll try contacting Dr. Shiba later for the details,” he assures, but he gets the feeling he still wouldn’t be getting any answers. At any rate, he can’t let his doubt show. It’ll only unsettle the squad more.

“By the way,” Hide fills the silence that follows before it could get awkward. He’d never liked awkward silences. “What time are you guys leaving for work?”

“Around seven,” Haise tells him, his eyes flickering to the clock on the wall. “It’s about time to wake Saiko-chan up.”

With a weary groan, Shirazu finishes his breakfast in several quick bites and stands up. Over the past couple of days, he’d somehow officially become the only person in the world who could get the girl out of bed. It’s an achievement to be proud of, as well as a heavy burden to bear. Hide fetches his own empty plate and joins him to do the dishes.

“Need some help with her?” Hide offers, and the younger boy raises an eyebrow at his confidence.

“You sure, Hide-san? It’ll take a while,” Shirazu warns, his mind doing war flashbacks of the countless days they’d attempted the very same thing and ended up failing miserably. “Don’t you need to get ready yourself?”

He asks this because Hide still hasn’t showered and its obvious. His hair’s a rat nest and there’s still traces of sleep on his face. The blond waves a dismissive hand.

“I can afford going out later than the rest of you,” he says, taking over Shirazu’s spot to wash his plate. “My transfer’s not official until the day after tomorrow, after all. I can’t join you guys in your investigation just yet.” He places the clean dishware onto the rack. “Besides, I‘ve got an idea since I used to be a mediocre gamer myself. She owns a console, right?”

Wordlessly, Shirazu nods. A sly smile creeps to the blond’s lips as he gestures for him accompany him for the task.

“Watch and learn, shark boy.”

They head upstairs, and barely five minutes later, Haise and Mutsuki hears a shrill scream, and a minute after that, Saiko’s running towards them. They couldn’t even decide which was more unbelievable; the fact that the duo managed to wake her so quickly or the fact that she’s actually running. Saiko goes straight to Haise’s side, ignoring the two male’s stupefied looks.

“Mama do something they’re bullying me!” she tugs at Haise’s arm and says in one go, tears flowing out of her eyes in a steady stream. Seeing how genuinely distressed she is, Haise’s actually worried for a moment. What did those two do to her? How could they treat a girl so harshly to the point of making her cry? Really, he tries to stay angry - but his temper just wouldn’t let him when he sees Hide and Shirazu parading into the dining room with an expression of pride akin to that of an Olympics gold medalist’s on their faces.

“See? What did I tell you?” Hide’s saying while Shirazu stares at him in a sort of agape wonder. Haise notices that Saiko has her gaze locked on the rectangular object Hide’s holding in his hand.

“Saiko-chan,” he starts, keeping his voice leveled the best he can so he doesn’t end up laughing from his own increasing amusement. “What-“

“They’re threatening to delete all my saved data and sink my DS!” Saiko cries before he could finish his sentence. Having little-to-none gaming experience himself, Haise initially fails to see what’s the big deal about that. She could always restart the game if the data’s gone and if they really did soak the console she could always buy a new one with her paycheck. Haise obviously doesn’t understand that it was a matter of heart, effort and time put into clearing the game and not anything as remotely practical as that.

“Relax, girl,” Hide soothes, holding up his hands. “I just deleted the first file that was saved like - what, five months ago? I’m sure you’re way past that stage already.” He holds out the DS towards her, smiling apologetically. “Here you go. I’m sorry if I went overboard there.”

Sniffling, Saiko takes the device and immediately boots it up to check her saved data. She doesn’t mutter her thanks until she confirms that Hide’s speaking the truth and calms down. Hide once again apologizes for upsetting her so badly. He had expected her to overreact like every other avid gamer when it comes to their saved files, but he didn’t know she would start wailing and run straight to her mentor and call him her mother.

“Oh, and Saiko-chan,” Haise says once everything has settled down and Saiko has mostly reverted back to her usual lethargic self. “This person here is Rank 1 Nagachika Hideyoshi. He’ll be staying here with us as part of our squad from here on out.”

“He’s going to be here every morning?” Saiko gasps, horrified. At that, Hide laughs good-naturedly.

“Yes, I am,” he says with so much cheeriness that it’s a little sinister. “But I won’t be deleting any more of your files if you’re capable of waking yourself up more often.”

“There’s no use even if you hide your stuff,” Shirazu warns, guessing what’s in the girl’s mind at once. He splutters in exasperation when Saiko shoots him a pleading look. “For Christ’s sake, Saiko, you can’t expect me to carry you all over Tokyo every day! I’m still young and I need a backbone!”

“Shirazu-kun’s right,” Mutsuki agrees solemnly, his hands curling into loose fists on his lap. He’d never liked reprimanding others, but some things had to be done. “You’re part of the Quinx squad as well, Saiko-chan. Even if sensei’s not saying anything, you can’t be selfish forever. You have to work your part too; it’s only right that way.”

“But I’ve been trying,” Saiko protests weakly, fiddling with the fabric of her nightdress. It’s ironic how unaffected she normally is by death threats but a serious civilized conversation like this manages to make her feel the slightest bit guilty. “I’ve been doing my best to sleep earlier these days.”

“There’s no point if you can’t wake up all the same!” Shirazu bursts, and Haise motions for him to stop from saying any further. It’s good that they’re finally confronting her properly about her behavior, but it would be bad if it affects the quality of her work for the rest of the day. Dealing with a lazy Saiko is something they’re somewhat used to. Dealing with a sulky one isn’t. Haise isn’t the most skillful person around when it comes to handling people, but he does know that everything has to be taken one step at a time.

“That’s enough,” he says conclusively. They don’t have the time to keep going, anyway. “The important thing here is that she’s awake. We can leave the rest of the discussion for tonight.” He turns to address the girl, losing the edge in his voice. “Go take your shower, Saiko-chan. We’ll be leaving soon.”

“You’re always being too soft on her, Sassan,” Shirazu complains once Saiko had trudged off thoughtfully. “She’ll never change if you keep on babying her like that.”

“I know,” Haise sighs, running a hand through his hair and very effectively messing it up. The uncertainty on his face is enough to make the ginger bite back the rest of his protests. Sassan’s trying his best too. He himself isn’t sure what he should do, but he’s trying.

“All that aside,” Hide says, once again skillfully warding off the uncomfortable silence that’s bound to befall them as soon as Haise stops speaking. He regards the latter, tilts his head to the side, and breaks into a cheeky grin. “Mama?

Blush immediately rises to Haise’s pale cheeks, but he’s smiling too. “Shut up, Hide.”

 “Sensei’s like a parent to us, after all,” Mutsuki says, standing up with a used mug in his hands and starting his way to the sink. “You can’t really blame her for calling him that.”

“Even I almost called him Mom a few times before,” Shirazu blurts out without thinking, and immediately regrets it when three pairs of eyes train on him. “You know what? Forget I said that.”

“Must be hard being a single mother,” Hide turns back to Haise and sympathizes, complying to Shirazu’s request. “But worry not! For you have me now!”

“You made Saiko-chan cry before she even knew you,” Haise points out wryly. Hide makes an elaborate gesture with his hands.

“Pshh, don’t sweat the details, buddy! That was an accident.” He sniffs, running a finger across his nostrils. “I would usually never dare upset a girl to that degree, I promise.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Haise tells him, and Hide laughs.

“Sure thing,” he says, leaning forward against the back of the chair he’s standing behind. “That aside, Haise, have you eaten your share of breakfast?”’

Haise’s instantly defensive. Hide doesn’t know he’s a half ghoul, does he? He can’t let him know yet. Not until the circumstances are right. It’s better that way. Hide shouldn’t know so soon, shouldn’t stress himself out over the fact that he has to work with a potential monster.

“I-I’ve had a cup of coffee earlier,” he replies, averting his gaze and working to sound as casual as he can. Please don’t ask any further. Please don’t ask any further. “And I don’t really have an appetite in the mornings, so I’m alright.”

“Oh. Okay.” Hide shrugs, apparently satisfied with his pathetic excuse for an answer. Haise stares at him, suddenly aware of a fact.

“What about you, Hide? You only settled for one omelet,” he says, and Hide glances at him curiously. “Is that even enough? I mean, you seem like a guy who uses up a lot of energy and stuff.”

“I prefer to save some space for a heavy lunch,” Hide says easily, blowing a stray strand of hair out of his eyes. Haise catches himself developing the strangest urge to comb his fingers through that messy mop of blonde locks. “My stomach doesn’t really work properly in the mornings, either.”

“We’re pretty similar, huh?” Haise muses. He meets the blond’s gaze, abruptly noticing the peculiar look in his brown eyes.

“You have no idea,” Hide says quietly, earning himself a confused stare from the other boy. But before Haise gets the chance to ask him what he means by that, Saiko’s back with them, freshly bathed and wearing the standard investigator’s uniform. Haise hastily decides to save the question for later, and stands up. Now that she’s done, it’s time for them to go.

“Your hair’s a ruin, you know that?” Hide comments as he walks up to him when he’s knotting his tie in the foyer. Oh. He’d forgotten about that. Haise freezes up in surprise when Hide starts helping him tidy it with a brush he had ready.

And he discovers that despite his loud behavior, Hide could be incredibly gentle when he wants to.

What?” Hide demands indignantly when the Quinx kids each stop at their activities to gape at the both of them in bewilderment. “Mama needs to be pampered every once in a while, too!”

They then proceed to shift their attention anywhere but their direction and Haise’s face is positively on fire. He eventually manages to keep his embarrassment at bay, fortunately, and clears his throat before thanking the blond for the favor. Hide grins, completely unperturbed by the sheer cheesiness of his last sentence.

“No problem,” he says, stepping aside to make way for the rest of the squad. “Be careful out there, okay?”

Haise nods, a pleasant feeling blooming within himself. How long has it been since someone saw him off at home like that? “You too, Hide. I’m not sure what time we’ll be back tonight, so feel free to have dinner without us if we’re too late.”

“Noted.” Hide’s grin doesn’t falter as he waves at the four of them from the entryway. “Have fun, guys!”

xXx

Needless to say, Haise did not have fun.

It’s great that their investigation’s finally making some progress, but Haise’s more drained from the events that came after their meeting with Juuzou’s squad.

His visits to Cochlea and his talks with Donato always had that effect on him. The topic on his memory had been brought up today, and while the ghoul made it sound like it was just another gossip of the hour, Haise’s still unsettled. What Donato said had been true to the very word. His speculations were so spot-on that Haise figures he really should feel more disturbed instead of thanking him for helping him organize his thoughts.

His lost memories are always something that comes bothering him time and again, especially when he’s not busy with work. Every time he walks past a café, enters a bookstore or library, or even when he’s wandering through certain routes - there will be an odd pang of nostalgia in his heart. What’s so special about them? What significance do those places hold? Despite all his talk about not minding even if he never remembered, part of Haise itches to know. He wonders what sort of person he’d been for his first twenty years. He’s a bookworm, that’s for sure, but what else? What were his preferences? How was his sense of humor? Which college had he been attending and what course had he been taking? How did he get that scar near his abdomen? How was his family like? How were his parents like?

And then there’s the topic on his friends. He probably didn’t have a lot of friends (he still doesn’t), but what kind of people were they? Did they hang out together a lot? Were there lots of teasing between them? Was he always the one being bullied? Had he always been so awkward with girls? Did he have a best friend?

His.. best friend. The phrase itself gives him an unexplainable sense of hope and peace. Yes, yes he did have one. Whoever that person had been, he must’ve meant the world to him. Haise probably loved him more than anything, judging by how much it hurts to just ponder about it. He could forsake every other memory, but if he’s given the choice, he’d want the slightest recollection of who his most precious person had been. Just a tiny fragment is enough; a smile, a laugh, a touch, a call of his name. Anything.

Then again, things had never been easy for him, had it?

But at least the coffee he’s having tastes out of the world.

Haise casts one last fleeting glimpse towards the young waitress before taking his leave from the café. She’s a real beauty, that girl. Haise honestly thinks she’s too pretty to simply work in a quiet coffeehouse, but who is he to question her choices. She should work wherever she wants. Besides, she looks like she’s enjoying herself there. Haise isn’t able to explain it, but seeing her going about with so much enthusiasm gives him a strange feeling of ease. It’s ridiculous because he doesn’t even know her.

Or maybe he once did.

He can’t remember.

“I’m home,” Haise announces around twenty minutes later, stepping into the chateau. He half wonders if everyone had went out for a late dinner without him when he’s greeted with silence. It doesn’t matter either way. It’s not like he’s going to eat anything even if he’s with them.

Haise removes his coat and tugs off his tie before making his way to the dining area - which, is the usual hangout for the Quinx because it’s the biggest room in the house with the most breathing space. He finds Mutsuki huddled in a corner reading a novel and Shirazu lounged on a sofa watching a reality show on TV.  They both glance up when they hear him.

“Welcome back,” they manage to chime together, and Haise returns their smiles.

“Have you boys eaten your dinner?” he asks. The pair nods, and Haise sighs a breath of relief. At least they know when to eat properly. It’s difficult to say for Saiko’s case, though. “How about Hide?”

“He told us he already had something when we asked.” Mutsuki sets down his book and wrinkles his brow, looking worried. “He’s been in his room all this while.”

“I’ll go check on him,” Haise says, turning on his heels. He pauses before he walks off. “And before I forget - could you guys gather in the conference room in five? Call Saiko-chan down too. There’s something I’d like to discuss concerning our current case.”

He doesn’t stay to hear their response, but he knows they’ll be there. Taking large strides, Haise heads over to Hide’s room. He knocks a few times on his closed door in case he’s accidentally intruding at a wrong moment (it’d happened to him before - it wasn’t pretty), and blinks blankly when there’s no response. Strange. He’s positive that the clicking sounds are coming from within. Haise places his hand on the doorknob and twists, carefully opening the door by an inch just to peek inside.

It took Hide exactly one night to make the guest room completely his. He already had random articles of clothing strewn all over the floor and a few dozen sticky notes stuck on the wall above his paper-covered desk. He currently has a pair of headphones fitted over his ears and his attention focused on his laptop in intense concentration. Haise makes a split second decision to leave him alone. There’s something intimidating about the way he puts so much focus onto the text displayed on the digital screen. He could almost see the gears turning in the blond’s brain as he processes the words he’s seeing.

Haise’s just about to shut the door and leave when he hears the call of his name.

“Haise? That you?”

Haise peers in from the remaining gap. “Yeah.”

Hide pulls off his headphones and stands up from his seat, his grin like sunshine. “Welcome home, buddy! Anything I can help you with?”

“Ah, it’s alright. You seem busy.” Haise had actually intended to ask him if he would want to join them in their little discussion afterwards to see if he could come up with any useful theories that would help their investigation further. He knows he hadn’t the right to do so just yet, but he figures he might as well brief him first since he’s going to be joining them soon. And Hide did mention that he specializes on intel. Haise could use all the brains he could get.

“This? It’s nothing important, really,” Hide says, casually shutting his laptop with a soft snap. “I’m done with my latest case and I’m off duty until my real transfer here, so it’s fine if you want my aid in your investigation.”

Haise stares at him, slightly bewildered. “How did you know?”

“Intuition.” Hide winks and taps the side of his head. Haise couldn’t help wondering if his intuition’s really that sharp or if he’s just too easy to read. Perhaps it’s a little bit of both.

“The others are waiting for us in the conference room,” he says, taking a step back to let Hide exit his room. He smiles lopsidedly when Hide gives him a vacant look. “Come on. I’ll take you there.”

Hide visibly brightens up, and Haise personally finds the way his expressions seem to bounce about weirdly endearing. Hide oozes so much positive energy that it’s contagious. Haise could feel his weariness from the long day fading just by being with him; the tension leaving his shoulders, the burden in his mind temporarily forgotten.

“I didn’t have the chance to ask you this morning, but how’s the room? Is it comfortable enough?” Haise asks as they trudged along side by side, suddenly remembering his manners as the acting head of the house. Hide glances at him out of the corner of his eye.

“That room alone is bigger than the entire apartment I was staying in,” he tells him in all seriousness. Haise takes that as a ‘heck yes’ and asks nothing more. He leads Hide to the small drawing room the squad always uses for private discussions with no further conversation between them. Contrary to his expectations, the quietness is pleasant, calming. Hide sure is good at knowing when to talk and when not to.

“Right. Let’s begin,” Haise starts a little later once they’ve all settled down on the couches of the designated room with a set of printed notes in their possession. “Since Hide isn’t directly involved in this yet, let me go over the details once more.”

He then proceeds to summarize their investigation the best he could; starting from scratch and elaborating their process until their current situation. He’s careful to mention the important points and their hypotheses regarding the Nutcracker’s habits and feeding grounds and the like. Hide listens on, occasionally glancing up from the print-out he’s holding and asking meaningful questions to indicate that he’s still paying attention. From how it sounds, Haise guesses he’s already beginning his attempt to put the pieces of the puzzle together with whatever information they had. 

“It seems like Nuts is carefully investigating clubs and the like in the thirteenth ward for people to capture,” Haise continues, referring to the sheet of paper in his hands. He motions for the rest to take heed because this is something even they have not known yet. “According to the list, while there are unusual targets like humans with artificial eyes and vocalists, there are also those targeted on for their height and weight, and some even for vague reasons.*” He pauses, hit with a sudden realization. Wait. That’s it. There’s one thing common in the list.

“Guys,” he says, wearing a painfully straight face despite the ridicule of his coming proposal. “We’ll become girls.”

“What,” Saiko deadpans while Mutsuki and Shirazu only continue staring at him in stunned speechlessness, trying to figure out if he was really being serious. Unfortunately, Haise means it.

“I got it!” Hide smacks his forehead at his own revelation. Haise marvels at how utterly fast he’d caught up with his train of thought.

“Any other ideas?” he asks him, hoping for suggestions in case his own was too farfetched. However, Hide merely shrugs.

“Yours sounds plenty effective to me,” he says, almost nonchalantly. As if having to publicly dress up as a girl does not concern him the slightest. “But allow me to declare one thing.”

Haise silently urges him to continue. Hide turns to meet his gaze.

“You’d look terrible in a mini skirt.”

Chapter Text

If Hide gained a hundred yen for every lie he’d told for the past three years, he’d probably be a billionaire already.

Haise wouldn't look terrible in a mini skirt. He’d put the damn thing to shame.

But seriously, Hide wondered when he’d become such a natural liar and pretender. Untruths seem to easily flow out of him these days, the guilt that used to come with it either tucked too far away into the depths of his heart or simply gone without a trace; he couldn’t decide. Hide remembers how it’d all started with the pathetic excuse of ‘keeping a secret’. He couldn’t let Kaneki know he knows. He couldn’t let the CCG know about his best friend. He couldn’t let them know that he’s just using them to find the most important person of his world. He couldn’t let them know the reason  for the missing chunk on his upper arm.

And as time passes, almost every single thing he spouts inherently turns out false. Do you feel any pain? No. Do you feel any different? Not particularly. Any numbness or discomfort? No. Do you think you can handle this task? Sure, that’s what you’re keeping me here for.

Do you think you can erase him if the circumstances ever lead to that?

“You should rest early tonight,” Haise’s voice tugs him out of his reverie, and Hide blinks back into reality. They’re both alone in the hallway right outside their makeshift conference room and Haise’s standing close to him - almost too close. Hide could detect the faint scent of his cologne, mixed with a hint of sweat from his long day’s work. His heartbeat speeds up without his consent, and he works to keep his cool. He couldn’t afford to let his act to fall apart right now. “You look tired.”

“Have you seen a mirror today?” Hide swallows once and tells him, managing a lopsided smile. “You look like you’re about to faint right here, right now.”

“I’m not,” Haise denies with a very unconvincing yawn. “I can’t sleep yet. There’re some things I need to go over one last time before I do.”

“I can help out,” Hide offers. “I can be nocturnal when I need to.”

“There’s not much to do, really. Just confirming the patterns and all that,” Haise says, earning himself a disapproving frown from the blond.

“It’s not healthy to shoulder everything yourself, you know,” he says, a considerate change in his tone of voice. There it is again, Haise notices, but once again loses the chance to inquire about it. “I’ve got the day off tomorrow, Haise. I can rest till my heart’s content then.”

“But-“ Haise stops short when Hide plucks the sheet of paper off his hands. “Hide!”

“Just go take a bath and rest,” Hide tells him, sounding firmer now. Haise attempts to stare him down, but Hide’s unwavering. Huh. He’d always thought he’s the type who’d just go with the flow. Hide’s unexpectedly relentless. “It won’t do us any good if you fall sick anytime soon.”

He has a point, but Haise’s still hesitant. It’s not that he couldn’t trust Hide to do a good job, it’s just that he feels like he’s burdening him with extra work even though Hide is supposed to be transferred over to aid him in these things besides helping the CCG monitor over him.

“Hey, don’t look like that,” Hide speaks up, seeing how conflicted he looks. It’s seriously not good for him to keep that sort of mindset. “It’s fine, really. You’re forgetting that stuff like these are my strong points. I might even be able to get it done faster than you can.”

Haise perks up, suddenly remembering a thought. “Now that you mention it, I’ve always been wanting to ask.”

Bemused by the abrupt change in topic, Hide nods for him to continue.

“You mentioned the other day that you specialize on intelligence,” Haise starts, meeting his gaze. Hide works hard to not let himself be carried away with simply staring at those twin pools of grey. “So does that mean you’re associated with Division II, by any chance?”

“Hmm,” Hide scrunches up his face and rubs his chin in thought. “I guess you could say that? I’ve been all over the place, to be honest.”

Haise tilts his head slightly to the side, confused. “What do you mean?”

Hide takes a moment to find a way to put his situation in words. “I was with Division II for a little while before the higher-ups assigned me to do fieldwork ‘for the exposure’ or something? Apparently, they thought I was wasted as a Bureau Investigator with my physical abilities.” Hide shrugs. “I’m still not sure what’s going on in their heads, actually. I haven’t went back since.”

Another lie. He knows too well what’s the purpose behind everything the CCG had done to and for him. He knows it, and he hates it with every fiber of his being.

But it’s not like he has a choice.

“I see,” Haise mutters under his breath, averting his eyes in thought. His gaze flickers back to the blond a split second later. “Wait, doesn’t that mean that you’re actually kind of amazing?”

“Excuse you - ‘kind of’??” Hide places his hands on his hips and demands with so much playful indignity that Haise fails to suppress a smile. “I am obviously awesome beyond words.”

“Maybe you are,” Haise muses, crossing his arms. “But where’s the proof?”

Hide raises an eyebrow at that. “Is that a challenge I hear, Rank 1 Sasaki?”

“It might be, Rank 1 Nagachika,” Haise replies vaguely, starting his way to the bathroom. “I need to know if you’re worthy of helping me get my work done, after all.”

“Oh, you’re on,” Hide calls after him, thoroughly amused. He’s glad the mood between them had changed and that the tension had faded. “Check back at my room after you clean up, won’t you? I’m sure I’ll have it done by then.”

“If you need that long.” Haise does a waving motion with his hand before disappearing behind a corner. Hide’s smile eventually fades after his leave, and he blows out a long breath. He’s a liar and an actor, there’s no doubt about it.

But now that he thinks of it, he isn’t the only one in the house.

xXx

As it turns out, Hide spends almost the entire afternoon of his day off searching for fashion magazines and shopping for cosmetics upon Haise’s request.

The stares he earns from the shop assistants as he hesitates over which brand of lip gloss he should get makes him question his eagerness to contribute to the team. Then again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with him doing what he’s doing, is there? He’s just being overly self-conscious. Those poor employees had probably seen weirder shit than a constipated-looking young blond guy loitering around the makeup section on a working day.

Hide stops outside the drug store he’d just exited to check the list Saiko had written down for him before she left for work with the rest of the squad. Foundation, concealer, powder, blusher, eyeliner, eyeshadow, mascara, fake eyelashes, lip gloss.. yep, that’s about it. Hide stuffs the piece of paper back into his pocket, feeling oddly satisfied over his little achievement. All that’s left now are the fashion magazines.

Hide heads to the bookstore just a little further down the road, careful not to swing the shopping bag he’s holding too roughly lest he accidentally breaks something. They could reclaim the money spent from the CCG as long as they had the receipt as the verification of their purchase since it’s classified as a necessity for the investigation, but Hide doesn’t want to put his efforts to waste. It hadn’t been easy going all over the place trying to figure out which are the cheap bad stuff, expensive bad stuff, and affordable good stuff.

Hide had never been that much of a reader, so he figures he shouldn’t have had any sentiments towards the bookstore when he goes in. Unfortunately, he does and he knows better than anyone why that’s so. He hadn’t spent all those years being friends with Kaneki for nothing. How long has it been since I actually visited one of these places? Hide wonders, taking in the familiarity of the dozens of shelves of reading materials and the smell of old and new books alike. How long has it been since he even got himself some nice comics to read? Weeks? Months? Years?

Not that it matters.

Choosing a relevant magazine is even harder than the cosmetics part. Haise didn’t specify what sort he wants, but Hide’s pretty sure the ones featuring lolita fashion and cosplay are unsuitable for their situation. Harajuku fashion’s out of question too, he guesses. Standing out is good, but doing it the wrong way probably wouldn’t work in their favor since they are supposed to be undercover.

Hide gives up after flipping through his third magazine and opts to consult the employees at the information counter instead, asking if a beginner’s guide to making oneself pretty (his very words) exists. The lady recommends several books to him, and Hide decides to choose the one with the most convincing cover and price. He then proceeds to the designated shelf to retrieve a copy of it, picking up a novel from the latest-arrival section on his way. Haise probably doesn’t have the time to get one of the latter for himself. He’s going to ask when he hands it to him later, but Hide figures he would somehow be able to convince him that he’d simply made the assumption based on how he’d once happened to catch a glimpse of Takatsuki’s Sen’s works in his collection.

Hide had just finished paying for the books when he feels his cellphone vibrating in his pocket. He reaches for the device and checks the screen for the caller ID, quickening his pace to exit the store as he does so. He blinks when he registers that its Haise.

 “Yeah?” he says after picking up the call. He keeps his phone against his ear with his shoulder while he carefully stuffs the books he’d just bought into the same bag as the makeup products so he wouldn’t have so many things to hold later.

“Hide?” Haise’s voice sounds from the other side of the line. Hide has to strain a little in order to hear him clearly due to the noisy background. “Where are you now?”

“In front of a bookstore in the 13th Ward.” Hide moves to properly grip his phone once more. “I’ve just finished getting all the stuff you guys wanted.”

“Great timing.” Haise sounds oddly excited. “Do you have any plans after this?”

“Not really - why?”

“Could you wait for us at the crossing in front of the donut shop near the train station? There’s somewhere I’d like to take you.”

“You guys are done for today already?” Hide asks, beginning his walk to the mentioned place. One thing he liked about the CCG’s work system; it’s incredibly flexible. As long as the investigators manage to solve their cases within the given time frame, what they do in between is entirely up to them. They could do their job at their own pace that way. They could afford to slack off at the beginning and end up working overtime later - which, is what usually happens in most cases. The very start is where all the information are gathered and stressed over. The end is where all the action occurs.

“Yes. We’re coming over right now,” Haise affirms. He pauses for a moment before speaking again. “We’ll be there in about ten minutes.”

“Alrighty.” Hide ends the call and slips his phone back into his pocket, wondering what Haise has in mind.

The good thing: the coffee is incredible.

The not-so good thing: Hide recognizes the pretty waitress.

Haise had brought him to the café he’d recently taken a liking to; a quiet, western-ish themed place going by the odd name of :RE. “I’ll treat you as an advanced celebration for your transfer,” Haise had said as he led him and the gang into the coffeehouse with a sort of sparkle in his eyes. And Hide had, just like any other first-time visitor, looked around to admire the unique décor and structural design and all that. A pleasant place, he'd  thought approvingly, taking in the little details like the antiques and small shelves of books. Haise’s tastes aren’t too bad.

Hide would’ve probably fared better if  he hadn’t seen the girl and vice versa.

It would probably have been even better if she hadn’t remembered him at all.

“She’s a real babe, isn’t she?” Shirazu asks when he notices Hide staring at her while she prepares their order at the bar. Hide focuses back on his teammates, lifting his cup to his lips in hopes of hiding his growing anxiety. He hastily puts on his habitual smile after he’d taken a taste of the heavenly beverage, deciding that perhaps its best for him not to mention Touka’s name in front of Haise just yet. If he’s frequently coming here, it should be safe for him to presume that her appearance alone hadn’t been able to trigger anything big thus far.

“She sure is,” Hide agrees with a lighthearted laugh that came unexpectedly easily. Act normal. He has to act normal. He places his arms on the table and rests his chin on his upturned palm. “I wonder if she has a boyfriend or anything?”

“Even if she doesn’t,” Haise starts evenly, setting down his own cup on its saucer. “She probably wouldn’t want to go out with you.”

Hide gasps dramatically, splaying his hand across his chest. “Haise, I am hurt!”

“Oh, burnn,” Saiko pauses from her cookie binge to snicker. Even Mutsuki had to smile at his mentor’s frank remark.

“It’s okay even if you get rejected, Hide-san,” Shirazu consoles the blond with a chortle and a cheerful pat on his back. “There’s still lots of other cuties out there for you to charm!”

“I suppose.” Hide fakes a sniffle. “But that doesn’t change the fact that Haise broke my poor fragile heart!”

“I’ll apologize if you quiet down, alright?” Haise tells him, still very much unfazed by his playful outburst. 

“You’re just jealous because I’m more attractive that you.” Hide pouts. Haise doesn’t bother saying more, instead choosing to resume enjoying his coffee. Hide willingly lets the subject drop to savor his beverage as well, starting up small talks with the Quinx in between sips. He figures that if he’s really going to be their ‘dad’, he’d have to know them better. Haise and Shirazu seem to have warmed up to him already and he’s making good progress with Saiko despite their dispute the morning before, but it’s still a little difficult to tell with the remaining two. Mutsuki looks like the reserved type who’d take a little while more before he’s able to open up to him, while Urie outright refuses to look him in the eye most of the time.

But he should be able to do it if he tries hard enough. Probably.

“You’re seriously going to ask her out?” Shirazu inquires when Hide stands up after finishing his coffee. Hide laughs at the bewildered stares of his companions.

“What do you guys think?” he says, his eyes flickering towards the girl and meeting her curious gaze. He hopes he’s able to get his message across. “Who knows - maybe she’d actually like me and I’ll be able to prove Haise wrong.”

“Good luck, Hide-san.” Saiko’s the only one who’s capable of speech, giving him a double thumbs up. The boys could only stare after him dumbfounded.

Hide works to mentally prepare himself for the confrontation as he makes his way towards the other end of the shop where Touka’s standing. More deceit, more secrets. Now that he thinks of it, he could’ve always pretended he didn’t recognize who she was when he first entered the place. That would surely have saved him a lot of trouble.

Then again, after all the poor girl had been through, Hide doesn’t think he has the heart to do that. Even though there are so many risks, he wants to let her know that he’s still her friend - provided he could be considered that in the first place.

Because friends don’t feed each other lies, do they?

“Hey,” Hide greets, coming to a stop before the girl. He stands with his back facing his team. “It’s been a while, Touka-chan.”

“Nagachika-san,” Touka returns with a small smile, holding her hands behind her. “I’m surprised you still remember me.”

“I never forget the girls I’ve flirted with,” Hide jokes, and Touka chuckles along politely. “How have you been? I know it’s a little late to ask, but did you manage to enter Kamii?”

Touka shakes her head, averting her gaze. “I passed the exams, but something came up at the last minute in my family.”

“I’m sorry,” Hide says, genuinely meaning it. Not that apologizing changes a thing. It must’ve been a wild ride; running away from her sanctuary in Anteiku after it got destroyed and trying to find a safe, peaceful life in a completely foreign place. She didn’t deserve any of that. Nobody does.

“So,” Touka starts, but clamps up immediately after in hesitation. Hide waits, watching her expression slowly morph back to that of resolution before she asks, “You’re with the CCG now?”   

“Yeah,” Hide admits sheepishly, scratching his cheek. No point hiding that when it’s so painfully obvious. He resists the urge to fidget as Touka stares up at him, her deep purple eyes studying him with such intensity that he’s almost sure she’s going to bore a hole in his face.

“You seem a little different from the last time,” she observes, and Hide comes dangerously close to faltering. Had he been seen through already?

“I’d be damned if I hadn’t changed even a bit after so many years,” Hide responds with as much joviality he could muster. “You’ve changed too, Touka-chan. You’ve grown to be a lot more elegant now.”

“Thank you,” Touka tells him, and Hide’s just about to congratulate himself for the successful evasion when he notices her subtle look of sympathy. “And you seem to have lost a little of your shine.”

I never noticed I had any to begin with, Hide wants to answer but doesn’t because it’s amazing how it only takes one sentence for him to give up on putting up his usual front.

“Well, a lot of things did happen after all,” he whispers, raking his fingers through his hair. This is bad. He’s afraid that his voice would break if he speaks any louder. Touka nods forlornly in understanding. Hide knows she’s thinking about Kaneki too. He isn’t the only one who’d lost him on that day two years ago. Kaneki had other friends - people whom he’d met during his six-month period of disappearance. People whom he’d considered comrades and perhaps even family. People who are probably still waiting for his comeback the entire while despite what’s written in the official reports.

People whom he’d completely forgotten and possibly would never want to remember again.

 “At any rate,” Hide takes a breath, willing the gloomy atmosphere that’d descended upon them to disappear. He has to, or else the mask he’d painstakingly crafted for himself would slowly crumble and fade away. “We’ll just have to keep trying our best to keep moving on.”

The last part sounded a tad bit too random even to him, but Touka doesn’t seemed bothered by the trivial details. “You’re right.”

“Well then,” Hide takes a step back. “I guess it’s about time for me to go.”

“Your friends seemed to have paid the bill already,” Touka agrees, stealing a quick glance behind him before detaching herself from the wall she’d been leaning against. “I’ll see you around, Nagachika-san.”

Hide offers her one last smile before moving to reunite with his group. He prays to every god he knows by name for his face to not betray the nature of his latest conversation. He doesn’t want them to worry over him. He isn’t worth their concern.

“How did it go?” Shirazu asks him eagerly as soon as he falls in step with them. The others turn to gaze at him with eerily identical looks of anticipation. Hide would’ve invited them to take a wild guess if he thought he could maintain his composure long enough. As it is, he could only manage a halfhearted shrug.

“Guess I’m not her type.”

xXx

Since they’ve already made all the necessary plans, all that’s left is to wait for Friday night to take the next step. 

“That’s when Nuts would be searching for her next target in the 2nd Ward,” Haise says, pulling his coat a little tighter around himself as he walks on. Winter’s a little more than a month away, and the temperature’s steadily dropping by the day. “We’ve got until tomorrow night to do the necessary preparations.”

“All that aside,” Hide cuts in with a small frown. “Did you get enough sleep yesterday?”

Haise rubs his eyes. “I think so. I was reading that guide you bought and I just sort of forgotten about the time.”

“I swear to god, Haise,” Hide sighs exasperatedly. “If I catch you pulling another all-nighter when I’m around I’ll-“

Haise doesn’t stay with him long enough to hear the rest of his threat. He hurries towards the lady he’d spotted further in the lobby of CCG’s main building, keen to reach her before she vanishes somewhere and he has to spend the entire morning searching for her.

“Akira-san!” he calls out for her attention, and to his relief, she hears him and stops in her tracks. Haise practically jogs over to where she is.

“I’ve certified Hi- Rank 1 Nagachika’s transfer documents,” he says once he’d reached her, holding out the mentioned blond’s file. Wordlessly, Akira accepts the folder and immediately proceeds to skim through its contents as a final checking. Haise shifts his weight from foot to foot, feeling like a student being personally evaluated by his scary teacher in front of the class. Akira’s being oddly silent about this. Haise had honestly expected her to give him a small lecture or something about establishing teamwork with the newcomer and all that. Perhaps she deems the process unnecessary seeing that they’ve already met Hide.

“Ah, Akira-san! Good morning!” The silence in the air is eventually broken by Hide’s ever-energetic voice. Haise glances over his shoulder to see the blond walking briskly towards them, his usual grin on his face.

“Nagachika,” Akira greets, barely taking her eyes off the paper she’s reading to even spare him a glance. “I see that you’ve gotten a little livelier than usual.”

“Oh, man, you have no idea how much difference there is between having to work with a bunch of grumpy, overly serious adults who can’t take a joke and a group of youngsters within my age group,” Hide tells her, waving his arms elaborately. Almost like a boy recalling about his day at school to his mother. Akira finally finishes going over the documents and looks up to regard her two subordinates.

“Just don’t get carried away,” she reminds the blond with a wry smile. Hide straightens as though coming to attention.

“Yes, ma’am!”

“By the way, Akira-san,” Haise speaks up before his superior could walk off again. “Can I ask for a favor?  It has something to do with our investigation.”

Akira raises an eyebrow, prompting him to continue. Haise swallows once, bracing himself for a potential Mado punch.

“Do you think you can lend me a dress?”

Hide could not understand the complex mechanics of applying eyeliner.  

He could not believe this. His many achievements include solving detective novels by the first half of the stories and hacking into the CCG records system. He graduated from his training program in a year and rose two ranks in less than that. He could make wicked pancakes and he’d even placed a tracking device on a violent, sadistic ghoul before without getting himself caught and killed.

But he could not, for the life of him, draw a nice, even line on the base of his eyelid.

Hide gets so frustrated he’s tempted to break the brush in half and stuff the pieces into his mouth. How do people even do it so perfectly on a daily basis? Hide’s baffled. It’s beyond his comprehension. Hide grumbles to himself as he wipes the makeup off his eyes for the umpteenth time that evening. He could do the rest of his face, no problem. In fact, he’s quite proud of his contouring abilities. It’s only the bloody eyelining that he’s unable to get the hang of.

He doesn’t even want to consider asking Saiko to help him. She’s already got her hands full beautifying three people including herself. Hide wonders how she’s managing. She started work two whole hours earlier than him, and from the sounds of it, she’s still not done. She must really be putting her heart into doing this.

Hide breathes a defeated sigh, getting to his feet. There’s only one more person he could ask for assistance from. Haise and himself had volunteered to do their own makeup while Saiko offered to take Shirazu and Mutsuki under her wing. Hide honestly thought he’d be okay since he could always watch and read tutorials from the internet. Really, how hard could slapping on some powder onto his face be? If so many others could do it, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to.

That was probably the biggest mistake of his life. And Hide has made many big mistakes.

Hide hurries to the bedrooms upstairs, silently thanking the deities for the cold weather. He would hit a wall with his face if his makeup started melting soon. Being and staying pretty is such hard work, geez.

He stops before Haise’s door, pausing for a moment before knocking to crack a smile at Shirazu’s creative swearing that’s coming from Saiko’s room. That girl’s really having fun, huh? Hide shakes his head, amused. Must be nice being young and innocent.

“Haise,” Hide calls, rapping on the polished wood a couple of times. “Can I come in? I need your help on something.”

“Yeah, sure,” Haise’s muffled voice answers him soon after. Hide reaches to twist the doorknob, and pushing the panel from its frame, he steps in.

Haise is already fully equipped; his gear and accessories all in place unlike Hide who’s still in his normal clothes save the hairband he’s wearing to keep his hair off his face. If his life was a cheesy romance drama, Hide swears he’d be hearing the opening of a certain English jazz love song beginning to play in the background as soon he sets his gaze upon the other boy. If his life also somehow happens to be a shoujo manga, Haise’s hair would also have shifted in slow motion from his movement when he turned on his chair to face him and there would be an obnoxious amount of flowers surrounding him and Hide would have to shade his eyes because holy motherflipping heck Haise is gorgeous.

It takes Hide at least four tries before he’s able to regain his intelligibility. 

“You look incredible,” is the first thing he blurts out after finding his voice. But no regrets. No regrets at all.

“A-Ah, really?” Haise stammers by accident, averting his gaze in slight embarrassment. He hadn’t expected the compliment at all. “I just followed the tips from the book, so..”

“Girl, you’re a masterpiece,” Hide affirms brightly, closing the door behind him. “But enough with the praises - you’ve got to help me. I can’t get my eyes to look right!”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Haise says, gesturing for the blond to take a seat on the edge of his bed after setting down his bottle of lip gloss on the table. Hide accepts his invitation and does just that. “Is it the eyelining? Or the mascara and false lashes?”

Everything,” Hide bemoans, disappointed at his own incapability. Haise chuckles in understanding.

“I know that feeling,” he says, moving to fetch his tools. “The eyes part took me the longest time to get, too.”

“At least you nailed it,” Hide puffs out his cheeks and whines, watching Haise prep his eyeliner. He shuts his eyes and wills his heart to stop banging so annoyingly hard against his chest when Haise leans in to draw on his eyelid.

“Sorry I have to be so close,” Haise apologizes, his breath ghosting over Hide’s face when he speaks. His fingers are cold against his skin, and perhaps even a little shaky. Is he nervous about this? Hide couldn’t blame him. Drawing a proper line on himself was hard enough. He couldn’t imagine doing it for someone else without being affected by the extreme pressure of messing up and giving that someone a pair of panda eyes.

“Nah, it’s fine,” Hide says, resisting his instincts to open his eyes while conversing with another. They slip into a short lapse of silence after that; with Hide trying his hardest not to get flustered like a high-school girl in front of her crush and Haise putting all his focus into doing a decent job and not ruining his teammate’s face.

Haise finally pulls back after ten painful minutes (at least to Hide) to admire his handiwork. “I don’t think you’d need falsies, Hide. Your eyelashes are long enough.”

“How do you mascara without stabbing your eye,” Hide laments, and Haise laughs softly at his exaggeration. Hide notices the scissors-like tool in his hands and instantly backs away. “Oh, no- you are not getting that thing anywhere near me. It looks like it can snip my eyelids right off!”

“It’s just an eyelash curler, Hide,” Haise says with the patience of a true mother. “It won’t as long as you don’t move about and make my hands slip.”

And Hide discovers that the process of making oneself pretty is also very frightening. By the time Haise’s done with his eyelashes, Hide’s palms are sweaty and he’s sure he’d just become about forty percent more religious than he’d been half an hour ago. He promptly develops a newfound respect towards the people who puts on makeup on a daily basis.

“Here,” Haise offers him a hand mirror once the horror was all over. Hide stares at his own reflection, marveling at the former’s skills with cosmetics. It’s incredible how Haise had learnt and perfected everything just by reading a guidebook. He didn’t even practice that much - which, makes it all the more impressive.

“Is it okay?” Haise asks, and Hide turns to shoot him an incredulous look.

Okay? I would date myself if I could!” Hide exclaims, earning himself a joyful smile from his companion.

“Please don’t,” Haise pleads, mirth coloring his voice. Hide beams and stands up, walking to the door with a bounce in his steps.

“You can’t stop me!”

xXx

Fifteen minutes later, the entire squad had gathered in the foyer and Hide’s just steeling himself up to ask for a group photo with the pretty ladies when he sees Mutsuki.

Though Hide has to admit that though she might have gone a little overboard with Shirazu’s makeup, Saiko did an excellent job with Mutsuki. Either that, or the latter’s simply a natural. He’s cuteness level could perhaps even be on par with Haise’s. If Hide had been a stranger to them, he would never have thought for a second that Mutsuki’s a guy.

However, he does notice one thing about the boy right now. While Mutsuki hadn’t voiced any objections when Haise proposed his idea of dressing up, Hide could see his current discomfort. He’s acting more absent than usual, keeping his eyes trained on the floor. His hands keep clenching and unclenching the front of his dress, and his body language implies that he seems to be trying very hard to make himself smaller and less noticeable than normal.

Come to think of it, Mutsuki has a pretty androgynous voice and appearance, doesn’t he? Something suddenly clicks into place. Ah. Hide thinks he gets it now. He contemplates if he should ask the boy to sit out of this mission after all, but he finally decides that perhaps he has no right to do that. If Mutsuki himself is willing to go through all of it, then he as a spectator should have no say over his choices. The most Hide can do is to carefully watch over him throughout the night.

“Hey,” Shirazu speaks up through gritted teeth when they’re entering the night club which the Nutcracker was supposed to target that day. Walking in a group, Hide couldn’t help feeling like he’s part of this fabulous girl gang. “Don’t you guys think we.. no - I’m the only one who looks out of place here?”

He doesn’t look ‘out of place’ per se, just maybe a little bit manlier compared to the rest of them. At least Saiko fitted him with a hair extension to increase his appeal. Hide suggested contacts too, but Shirazu’s apparently violently against poking something into his eyes.

“No, no, you look cu-“ Saiko cracks up before she’s able to utter her assurances. Shirazu shoots her a glare and is presumably about to yell profanities at her when Haise speaks.

“Now, Shi-chan,” he chides in falsetto voice, raising his fingers delicately to his lips. “You should watch what you’re saying.”

Hide coughs into his fists to conceal the snort he’d just made. He’s really into this, isn’t he?

“But isn’t weird for a girl to be this big?” Shirazu protests, facing his mentor.

“Just think of yourself as a really tall girl,” Haise says breezily, unaffected by his subordinate’s look of anguish. Shirazu exhales a tired breath, slouching. Hide sees this and immediately goes over to his side.

“Also, no girl walks with such horrible posture,” Hide fusses, reaching to knead his thumbs into the back of the taller boy’s shoulder blades. “Come on - chin up, shoulders back and chest out. Poise, girl, poise! You’ve got to look confident or senpai will never notice you!”

“I don’t want to be noticed!” Shirazu complains, barely restraining himself from raising his voice in frustration. “Rather than that - Saiko, you bastard! There’s obviously something wrong with this huge difference between Tooru and I! You did a sloppy job.”

Saiko’s so calm compared to him that its almost laughable. “Yeah, well, it’s easier to work with a subject of higher quality,” she says, raising both her hands in mock surrender. “It’s amazing how feminine Mu-chan’s face is.”

Hide tenses up, his gaze flickering to the mentioned boy at once. To his relief, Mutsuki doesn’t look particularly shaken by Saiko’s statement. He does, however, look like he’d just stepped on a wet spot with a socked foot and is desperately trying not to let it show.

“And what’s up with Sassan and Hide-san who did it on their own?” Shirazu continues, turning to his two superiors. Hide only laughs awkwardly while Haise makes a dismissive motion with his hand.

“Stop making a fuss,” Haise says, then reminds him; “And right now, it’s Sasako and Hiyori.”

Shirazu proceeds to make a defeated noise from the base of his throat.

As they slowly proceed deeper into the center of the club, Hide gradually starts tuning out the rest of the conversation around him. The flashing lights and loud booming music are giving him a headache, so he seeks solace in his own thoughts. Mentally shutting himself completely out from the world by will is a skill that Hide had accidentally developed over the years. Sometimes, even he has to take a break and retreat into his own mind for a moment before returning to reality again.

By the time Hide had snapped back into his senses, he realizes that he’d separated from his squad. No matter - it’s still part of the plan. They were supposed to split up eventually in order to obtain as much data as they can. Hide weaves his way through the crowd of dancing youngsters and towards an unoccupied spot near the wall. Being around large numbers of people doesn’t scare him, but it really was getting harder to breathe there. Hide has had enough of breathing difficulties to last him a few lifetimes.

Hide absently twirls a lock of brown hair with his finger while he keeps his eyes open for anything suspicious. He hates his wig - it’s so stuffy and heavy and with the wind blowing outside it’s bound to get all tangled up when he reaches home. Again. But every single person in his team had agreed that his face is most suited for a long-haired brunette, so here he is in his misery. Hide sighs, crossing his legs. He should’ve worn a pair of tights under his dress. It’s getting a tad bit too breezy down there.

Hide looks up, and a particular lady standing in one corner catches his attention. Haise had shown him a picture of the Nutcracker during their meeting two nights ago, and Hide’s positive the person that’d caught his eye is the very same one from the photo. Well. What do you know. Hide’s working to come up with a decent plan to approach her without seeming dubious when he notices a familiar figure boldly walking up to her.

He blinks, his brain short-circuiting for one dangerous moment. Is that Tooru? What is that kid doing? He’s not actually planning to get recruited by her, is he? Is he drunk or something? Hide decides not to care anything about that now. Tooru’s safety is his first priority. He hurries his way over, never appreciating flats as much as he does at the moment. He could barely stand in high heels, let alone wobble somewhere at top speed. Haise and the others doesn’t really seem to have the same problem, though - much to his chagrin.

Five meters more and he’ll reach them. Hide takes a breath and clears his throat. Here goes nothing.

Mu-chan!” he calls out to the boy, dragging the honorific in a sort of whine and making his voice as naturally highly pitched as he could without cringing. He stops by his side and latches himself onto his arm, internally apologizing for the uncalled touchiness. He knows he really shouldn’t be glad about Mutsuki smelling like alcohol, but he is. It’ll be easier for them to play along with the act like that. “Didn’t I tell you already to not leave me alone in this place? Meanie!”

“Ah, Hiyori-san?” Mutsuki’s words are slurred. Yep, definitely drunk. “Sorry! I just saw her and-“

“Oh, my god!” Hide proceeds to fawn over the Nutcracker, hoping with all his might that he isn’t exaggerating his act. Do girls even behave like this? Maybe it’ll do him good to look slightly drunk, too. “You’re totally rocking that outfit, you know that? And your eyes,” Hide closes in towards her slightly before pulling back about double the distance. “So gorgeous.”

In actuality, Hide found her big, dark and blank irises unnerving as hell.

The Nutcracker says nothing, only studying the two of them in silence. Hide stares back, making himself look as innocent and oblivious as he’s able to. He tries to subtly shift into a position that’d let him show off his curves (he’s glad Saiko had suggested for the boys to get some padding - Hide’s positive he looks flat both front and back from every natural angle) and he even bats his eyelashes for good measure. Hell, he’d flip his hair too if he wasn’t worried about it falling off in the process. If there’s a time for him to turn up his charms up a notch, he figures this is it.

“Say,” she starts and it’s at that moment that Hide understands why her past victims had let themselves fall into her clutches. For ghoul with such warped tastes, Nuts has an impossibly charming voice; deep, smooth and pleasant. And of course, she had an impressive rack too but whatever. “Would you girls like to have a part time job?”

“What sort of job?” Hide inquires before Mutsuki could eagerly agree to it. Saying yes too quickly would seem suspicious, even if he is drunk.

“Just a simple one.” The Nutcracker shrugs casually. “You’ll just be helping out in a party as a waitress of some sort. The attendees are all from the upper class, so the pay’s quite high too.”

“Ooohh.” Hide works to sound interested. He turns to his subordinate. “What do you say, Mu-chan? We would finally be able to get that set of handbags we wanted if we do this.”

“Sounds great!” Mutsuki agrees energetically. He’s so out of character that Hide couldn’t help but wonder how many glasses he’d downed to end up like that. “When do we start?”

“Two weeks from now,” Nuts replies, reaching into her clutch to pull out a couple of name cards. “The details are all written here.”

“Thanks so much!” Hide says, followed by Mutsuki’s chime of “We’ll do our best!”. The latter then catches sight of the rest of the squad watching them from the sidelines, and practically skips his way over, leaving Hide to stumble after him.

“Sensei! She just invited us to a part-time job!” Mutsuki reports with a salute, earning himself gapes of surprise from Haise and Shirazu. Meanwhile, Saiko looks completely zoned out. “I’ve got her contact information!” he holds up the name card. “With this, we can infiltrate!”

“You did it, Tooru!” Shirazu overcomes his stupor and praises with a look of sheer pride. Mutsuki giggles in triumph. 

“Now, then - I shall dance! A victory dance!” he declares, sauntering towards the dance floor. Haise makes a weak attempt to stop him, but Mutsuki doesn’t seem to notice his efforts and marches straight on. Saiko breaks away from Haise’s loose hold as well, bounding after Mutsuki to tag along. Shirazu yells at her once, then promptly gives up and stomps after them instead, looking absolutely done with his life.

“They’re so energetic,” Hide comments with a laugh, leaning against the wall beside Haise. The Quinx’s voices could be heard all the way from where they stood. Haise sighs vacantly in agreement, facing straight ahead. Hide notices the faraway look in his eyes, and moves to brush his shoulder gently against his.

“Hey,” he starts, his voice just barely loud enough for his companion to hear.“I don’t know what’s going on in your mind right now, but it’ll be okay.”

Haise’s gaze flickered to meet his, and for a very brief moment, Hide’s able to catch a glimpse of the him under his everyday mask; the Haise who’s vulnerable and insecure and who’s just barely holding his life together without falling apart first. Not the bubbly, passionate Haise he shows to his subordinates and superiors; not the Haise everyone knows. “How are you so sure?”

“I’m not,” Hide confesses, rubbing the back of his neck. He smiles when Haise shoots him a strange stare. “But it doesn’t hurt to hope sometimes.”

“You’re weird,” Haise concludes after a while of silence, not seeming as wistful this time. Hide’s smile widens.

“What gave it away?”

xXx

“We can’t let Tooru go to the auction.”

Haise understands Hide’s concern for the boy. He doesn’t want to endanger him, either. Even though Juuzou will be there with him, the risks are too high. The burden Mutsuki has to bear will be massive. There are no guarantees that he’ll make it back out alive, and even if it does, it might even end up being traumatic for him; to be displayed and bid over as though he was an exotic good and not a person.

But that’s just half of it. Hide knows the experience of being ogled at by hundreds of perverse gazes would never leave him unscarred. They could do their best to keep his physical damage to a minimum, but mental and emotional-wise - it’s difficult to say. Bodily injuries can heal over time, but mental impacts aren’t as indulgent. Mutsuki could force himself to stay strong, or he could break down.

“It’s an order, Hide. We have no choice,” Haise says wearily. He catches himself, and works to sound upbeat once more. “It’ll be alright, Mutsuki-kun. You’ll be accompanied by Associate Special Class Suzuya, and he’s even stronger than me. We’ll also get there as quickly as we can so you.. don’t have to worry.”

“I got the invitation as well. I’ll go in Tooru’s place,” Hide volunteers, almost desperate to keep the younger boy out of it. He just can’t let him do this. He knows what Washuu Matsuri was scheming. Tooru wasn’t a pawn he could just use and dispose of as he pleases, he’s a live human being! Just because he’s a Ghoul Investigator and a Quinx doesn’t mean he’s strong and fearless!

“You can’t,” Haise tells him obstinately, shaking his head. “The decision has already been made by Associate Special Class Washuu and all the higher-ups in charge of this operation.”

“Then,” Hide leans forward in agitation, his fingers curling into the material of his pants. “Then I’ll go with him too.”

“Rank 3 Mutsuki and Associate Special Class Suzuya are to infiltrate into the auction and stir up a commotion in order to lower the guards of the attendees towards an ambush from the outside,” Haise says slowly, decisively. His eyes tell another story entirely, though. “Everyone else are to prepare for the extermination of the ghouls, and that’s that.”

Without staying to hear another word of Hide’s protest, Haise stands and leaves the room.

“..Thank you for worrying so much over me, Hide-san,” Mutsuki speaks as Hide slumps against his chair and breathes a loud, tired sigh. His voice is shaky and Hide notices that it’s taking his all to not burst into tears that very moment. “B-But I’ll be fine, really. If it’s something only I can do, I’ll gladly do it. I’ll manage somehow.”

 “No, I’ll go with you,” Hide says with utmost certainty, running his hand through his already messy hair. Mutsuki fails to comprehend his persistence.

“But you’ll get yourself in huge trouble when you’re found out..” he trails off  when he sees the wayward look on Hide’s face.

“It’ll be too late for them by the time I am.”

Chapter Text

Contrary to popular belief, Shirazu is not an idiot.

At least, not when it matters.

Even though he might not look like it, he does know how to figure out straightforward situations. Like how Hide was lying about asking the cute waitress out in the café, for example. The place was small and pretty much empty and of course Shirazu planned on abusing his enhanced hearing abilities to eavesdrop on his superior to see if he’s actually successful in getting himself a date (in his defense, everyone else was pretty much trying to do the same except Saiko, who, was too busy savoring the cookies she’d ordered) - so he’d hear them even if he didn’t want to.

And instead of the awkward stammers and lame pickup lines that Shirazu was anticipating, Hide had spoken to the girl as though they were already friends; even calling her by her given name. Touka, he remembers. Hide called her ‘Touka-chan’. Things didn’t sum up, and even Shirazu notices that. Why did he pretend not to know her in front of them?

The tone of his voice was also something he had never heard him use before. Shirazu isn’t the best person out there when it comes to describing emotions and all those sappy stuff, but he thought that for a moment there, Hide sounded.. melancholic. It’s amazing he even remembers the exact word but that’s not the point.

The point is that Sassan sounds like that too sometimes - mostly when the topic of his lost memories are brought up among them.

Shirazu sets his pen down and leans against the back of his chair, folding his arms behind his head and putting his legs up on the edge of his desk. All these simultaneous thinking is exhausting. He breathes in, and exhales in a heavy sigh. He never knew writing his will would feel so depressing. He heard that it’s compulsory for every CCG investigator who’s participating in a large operation to do this because there are no guarantees that they’ll be alive at the end of it, but still. There’s this odd tinge of finality to his words when he jots them down on the paper - almost like it’s already decided that he’s not coming back.

Shirazu’s will is simple; transfer all the money he owns into his father’s bank account and use it to make sure he gets the medical attention he needs to fully recover from his illness. The rest of his little belongings can either be burnt along with his corpse or given to anyone who wants or needs them. Nothing special, nothing grand. He’s just doing what other people would usually do. He does wonder, though, if anyone would care even if he somehow ended up dying. His father certainly isn’t in the condition to. Sasaki and Tooru might be upset to an extent. Saiko too, he guesses. Hide probably doesn’t know him enough to feel anything much. Urie would most likely sacrifice something to the gods as a thank-you gift.

Right. That’s one good reason for him not to die. He couldn’t possibly allow the bastard to have the satisfaction of getting rid of him. Nope, no way. Shirazu’s definitely not gonna let himself be killed so early. With that thought, he shifts to fold up the piece of paper, labels it as his ‘will’ - or at least that’s what he thinks he wrote - and heads to search for his mentor to hand it over.

Hide seems to be arguing something with Sasaki when he reaches their conference room. Shirazu stands outside, and waits. From the sounds of it, the meeting’s almost over. Hide’s unable to convince their mentor to let him accompany Tooru to the auction. Truth to be told, Shirazu would’ve volunteered to go in Tooru’s place too if he could look like a girl more convincingly. Tooru wouldn’t be able to use his Quinque when he’s inside, and he hasn’t even figured out how to activate his kagune yet. Things aren’t looking too bright for him already. Without a weapon to defend himself with, Tooru would be slaughtered in an instant. Having Associate Special Class Suzuya with him would perhaps increase his chances of survival by the slightest, but all it takes is a miscalculation in their plans, and it’ll be all over for the both of them. No matter how strong Suzuya is, there’s only so much even he can do unarmed against a whole bunch of ghouls.

“Ah, Sassan,” Shirazu calls when he hears the door open, walking over to pass the older boy his testament. “Here.”

Wordlessly, Haise accepts the folded piece of paper. He looks anxious and he’s unusually quiet. He must be worrying himself sick over Tooru, huh? Shirazu decides to play the ignorant one as he always does. There’s no need for an excessive amount of tension in their home. Any more than this and he figures he’ll go crazy before anyone else.

He’s just about to head back to his room after blabbering something about fixing Urie’s twisted personality while he’s still in the hospital and trying to sound cool by saying they had no choice but to charge in and save Tooru’s ass before the ghouls get to him and all that when the latter steps into the hallway, followed by their blond superior. Tooru looks so stricken, poor guy. Shirazu secretly vows to himself that if all goes well, he’d treat him to something nice and calming to help him recover a little from this ordeal when everything’s over. Maybe some burgers and stuff.

“Don’t worry ‘bout it, Tooru,” he gives the shorter boy a pat on the shoulder and assures, offering him a toothy grin. “We’ve got you covered, I promise! We’ll be in and out of there before you know it.”

“Y-Yeah,” Mutsuki mutters, eyes darting up to give him a grateful look. “Thanks, Shirazu-kun.”

“Don’t just cover him, watch my back too!” Hide’s cheerful voice sounds behind them, and Shirazu twists to face him, confused by his words.

“Huh?”

Hide’s wearing a crooked smile, his arms crossed over his chest. He might be hiding something, but he’s so natural with them that Shirazu simply fails to make himself wary of him. He probably has his own reasons to keep secrets. Perhaps one day, he’ll share with them. Who knows.

“Tooru won’t be going to that auction alone.”

Shirazu turns to Haise - who, meets his inquisitive gaze with an excellent pokerface.

“What.”

xXx

Urie’s discharged from the hospital early in the morning, almost irrationally so.

He smells the wonderful scent of grilled bacon wafting in the air as soon as he enters the chateau, and his stomach growls against his will. He’s always been sort of a picky eater, and the bland food he’s served in the hospital did not do much to help his appetite. Sasaki’s cooking beats those tasteless mush any day.

He could not believe that thought just crossed his mind.

Urie doesn’t bother going to the dining hall; he’s not in the mood to answer questions yet. He makes a beeline to his bedroom to fetch a fresh set of clothes and heads straight to the bathroom, making his footsteps as light and soundless as possible. He manages to make it there without bumping into anyone - they’re all probably seated around the table having breakfast already - and he has no problems with that. He glances at the handwritten roster stuck just above the washing machine as he strips himself of his stale clothes in the laundry room, and remembers that he’s supposed to be in charge of the laundry yesterday. Somebody has obviously filled in for him, so he figures he could always do today’s share later that night. He didn’t fancy feeling like he owed his teammates for something, no matter how trivial.

The stitched spot below his right scapula throbs dully when his skin comes in contact with the spray of warm water, and Urie fails to hold back a small wince. He had to be injected with RC suppressants in order for the surgery to take place without the interference of his regenerative abilities, and the effects of the drug still linger in his body. According to the doctors, it’s an unusual case since the dosage he’s administered should last only for a relatively short span of time - just enough for the medical procedures to take place completely - but he’s not in any danger. All he has to do is wait for it to wear off.

Throughout his entire stay in the hospital, Urie did not receive any visitors. More accurately, he did not want to see any. The words of ‘how are you feeling’ and ‘get well soon’ sounded empty to him. Fake. Pretentious. As if any of them would mean them when they didn’t even know him that well. He’d rather be alone in his ward with music blasting from his earphones while he stared outside the window or at the ceiling.

Doing up the last few buttons of his shirt, Urie exits the bathroom and begins his way to confront the members of his squad. He might dread the moment, but it doesn’t mean he isn’t resigned to the fact that he’d have to face them sooner or later. He’d submitted the consent form with this in mind, after all. A person cannot run away from the consequences of his actions; Urie knows that better than anyone.

“Well if it isn’t the stale cookie!”

Just his luck. The first one to spot him has to be that loud simpleton. Urie stifles a sigh, deliberately avoiding eye contact with Shirazu as he proceeds his way towards the kitchen. He stops a little away from his mentor who’s preparing breakfast by the stove, and to the older boy’s surprise, he bends into a slight bow.

“I apologize for missing out on my duties for the past few days,” he says formally. Haise turns around and blinks blankly at him for around two seconds before he’s able to overcome his stupor.

“Ah, it’s alright,” he says, waving his hands in front of him. “As long as you’re back here in good condition.”

He doesn’t ask any further, and Urie’s not obliged to prompt him. He straightens up, and takes a seat at the table. Shirazu’s giving him obnoxious looks and Mutsuki only greets him with a short “Welcome back” before spacing out again. Saiko’s half asleep and drooling onto her toast, and the newcomer’s preoccupied with the daily paper. Everything seems relatively normal, but Urie senses a thin film of unease in the air. Something’s going on.

Haise walks over and places a filled plate before him. “You went for the surgery, didn’t you?”

Urie remains quiet, calming picking up his cutlery to begin his breakfast. The atmosphere buzzes at the mention of the word ‘surgery’. He feels all the attention in the room being trained on him.

“Yes.”

He braces himself for the onslaught of nagging and lectures he knows he’s bound to receive, but Haise only places his hands on his hips, tilts his head towards the ceiling, and heaves a loud, undignified sigh.

“Why don’t you ever listen to me for once, geez,” he mutters in exasperation, returning his head to its natural position before raking his fingers through his hair. Urie stares at him, unimpressed. Haise shoots him a weary, lopsided smile. “If you think I’m going to chide you, Urie-kun, forget about it. It’s not like we can undo it even if we wanted to. Besides,” he pauses, and huffs. “We’ve got a bunch of other things to care about for the time being.”

“You missed out the fun of dressing up,” Hide tells him solemnly, putting down his newspaper. Urie pointedly ignores him. So does Haise.

“What he meant was,” Haise begins, settling down on the chair across Urie’s seat. “We’ve made progress in the Nutcracker’s case and we’re about to enter the next stage of the investigation. Since we’ll be attending a meeting with the rest of the squads that are involved in the raid later, I’d like to brief you now if you don’t mind.”

Wordlessly, Urie nods for him to continue. Haise proceeds to update him on their current situation, explaining that they’ve successfully obtained information on where the ghoul auction is to be held approximately two weeks from now. He gives him the outline of their plan and informs him that the decision has been made for Mutsuki and Suzuya to secretly infiltrate into the event and cause havoc from the inside while the outside forces prepare for an ambush.

“However, the Auction Wipeout Plan is still under development,” Haise says, lacing his fingers together atop the table. “Scouts have been sent to survey the venue for anything we can put to our advantage. Further details and advancements will be discussed in the conference afterwards.” He stops to look him straight in the eye. “If you’ve got any useful insights, Urie-kun, we’d appreciate it if you voiced them out instead of keeping them to yourself like you always do. We’d like to keep the number of risks as low as we possibly can.”

Because he’s going to be in the center of the chaos, huh? Urie thinks, side eyeing Mutsuki to his right. People can be so biased at times.

“This will be a great chance to aim for a promotion, too, apparently,” Hide speaks up, and Urie stiffens ever so slightly at the statement. “So you better work hard if you’re aiming for that.”

This is his chance; his chance to finally increase his ranking and take one step closer to fulfilling his goals. Depending on his performance, he could climb a rank or two higher. Achieving that would also mean he’d be able to overpower Rank 1 Sasaki in terms of authority - provided the latter does not get promoted at all; which, is highly unlikely, as much as he hates to admit. But no matter. There’s always an opportunity for him to get the hell out of this sorry squad if he’s in a high enough position.

“I understand,” Urie says curtly, finishing the last of his breakfast. He tries to conceal his distaste when Shirazu inches closer towards his direction, squinting at him in suspicion.

What surgery?” he demands, rather belatedly. Then again, it’d be stranger if he didn’t question him at all considering how he’d just disappeared without leaving as much as a note the other day.

“The opening of the frame,” Urie replies calmly, though his hand was already curling into a fist on his lap. “I’d decided that I’m fit to proceed with the next step of the Quinx experiment.”

“Bastard,” Shirazu growls, reaching to grab the stoic boy by the collar of his shirt. “You did it without Sassan’s permission, didn’t you?” He snarls when Urie averts his gaze and refuses to answer him, releasing his grip with a rough shove. “I swear, if you screw up during the operation and drag us all-“

“I assure you, I will not,” Urie hisses through gritted teeth, flashing him a glare that could probably kill if the receiving end hadn’t been Shirazu. “It is all within my calculations. Two weeks are more than enough for me to recover fully.”

“But if your kagune runs out of control by any chance,” Shirazu says, meeting his glare with his own. “Then I will cut you down.”

“That’s only if you can afford the time and energy to do that,” Urie retorts, moving to bring his dishes to the sink. “Though I doubt you’d be able to even if you did.”

“What was that you-“

“Guys, guys,” Hide claps loudly a couple of times and calls for order. “Let’s not talk about kicking each other’s butts so early in the morning, alright? You’re stressing us all out more than we already are.”

And miraculously, the two arguing boys say nothing more. Shirazu crosses his arms and grumbles to himself while Urie merely clicks his tongue once and leaves to clean his plate. A pregnant silence hangs around them right after.  It’s not a happy morning, and this obligates Hide to do something about it.

“Come on, you guys,” he begins, addressing his teammates with what he hopes is an optimistic tone. “Let’s relax a bit! I know this is your first major mission and there’s so much danger to consider, but it’s not good to feel so nervous when the real thing still so long away. It’s still a little too early to be worried. Who knows - we might be able to come up with something that guarantees a near zero casualty rate among us later.”

The last one is highly impossible, but Haise finds himself agreeing with the blond all the same. There’s no point in getting themselves so anxiously worked up when there are so many possibilities left, so many countermeasures they can take. They had to calm down and maintain a broad perspective towards their situation.

“Hide-san’s right.” To everyone’s astonishment, it’s Mutsuki who’d spoken. Even Saiko wakes to his soft, serious and slightly quivery voice. “We can’t keep going on like this.”

He sounds like he’s trying hard just to convince himself. It’s faint, but Haise spots a glimmer of determination returning to the boy’s eyes. He’s getting stronger, slowly. He still doesn’t like the idea of letting him attend the auction, but the situation’s a little different with Mutsuki being willful. The mood of a single person can affect the mood of the entire team. Mutsuki’s currently the main person everyone is concerned over because of the awful position he’s in; and if he’s scared, the others would feel it and become uneasy themselves.

If he’s confident, even if the confidence is forced, the others could perhaps have the slightest peace of mind.

“Darn right, we can’t,” Hide agrees, his relief obvious across his face at the sight of Mutsuki working to steel himself up. That boy isn’t as fragile as he seems. That’s good. “So what say we race one another to HQ just to loosen up these tense muscles a little?”

He receives a chorus of pained whining as a reply, and laughs lightheartedly.

“Just kidding,” he says, lifting his arms above his head in a stretch. “Though I think I could really use the exercise. I won’t survive a minute in that auction with the shape I’m in right now.”

“You’re not seriously thinking of jogging all the way to the main building,” Haise tells him incredulously. He exhales wearily when Hide shows him one of his cocky yet oddly endearing grins, knowing full well of his answer without the need for him to say a thing.

“I hope the air-fresheners in the conference room are working.”

xXx

Long story short, the entire meeting was nerve-wrecking.

Nevermind the kids, it took every shred of Haise’s willpower to not squirm in his seat under the judging gaze of Division II’s director at the head of the table. He wonders how could a person be born looking like he’s on a new level of done with the entire world. The other Washuus he’d met so far looked nicer and way easier to approach compared to this one. Director Washuu was a pretty good guy and Chairman Washuu bore a relatively neutral appearance despite his stern nature. Haise has to agree with Hide on this; the urge to introduce his fist to Washuu Matsuri’s face is overwhelming. Just to wipe that look off his features. Preferably permanently.

But appearance aside, the man’s capabilities are unquestioned. Haise had never met someone who could use his brain with such frightening efficiency. Barely anyone had anything else to ask or add throughout the entire meeting because Washuu Matsuri had every single thing - literally everything; even Hide had been stunned - thought of and compromised. His suggested courses of actions had layers upon layers of hidden schemes; a single move resulting in several chain reactions. As much as he disliked him, Haise knows this man isn’t a person he’d want as his personal enemy.

God, that was exhausting,” Hide groans once it was all over and they were free to return to their own businesses, running a hand across his face. Haise understands; the mental strain alone was enough to sap his energy while he sat there and attempted to follow the discussion held. If they’re planning to have conferences like this almost every day until the actual date of the auction, Haise isn’t very sure if he’d be able to keep surviving.

“Remind me to never jog here all the way from home ever again,” Hide adds, flexing his neck and wincing. More than anything, Haise has to respect the blond for his spontaneity. Hide had seriously ran the whole way from their chateau to HQ while trying to keep up with their car. He did look like he was in danger of having an asthmatic fit by the end of it, though.

“Maybe we ought to do some training before the operation begins,” Haise muses, covering his mouth thoughtfully. “Especially the kids since they’ve never actually faced so many ghouls at once before.”

“We could always spar in the backyard or something,” Hide suggests. He stops in front of a vending machine and proceeds to get himself and his companion a cup of coffee each.

“There’s a small practice hall at the back of the chateau, if I remember correctly. We can use that,” Haise says, already attempting to mentally come up with an appropriate schedule. Would four hours a day be enough? Would they even have four hours to spare?

“The place has practically everything, wow,” Hide marvels, his brown eyes gleaming like a child in awe as he hands Haise his beverage. Haise smiles his thanks, but quickly turns somber again. Hide settles down on the bench beside him, gently blowing into his drink before taking a careful sip.

“You know,” Haise starts, breaking the lapse of comfortable silence they’d eventually slipped into. Hide meets his gaze, and raises an eyebrow. “Sometimes, I just wonder how you do it.”

Hide frowns in confusion. “Do what?”

“Behaving so naturally in front of the others,” Haise says, breaking eye contact to focus on the spot by his feet. “I mean, your trouble doesn’t show on your face at all and you always manage to be so positive all the time.” A pause. “Unlike me.”

“There’s nothing wrong with how you’re doing things right now,” Hide tells him, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. “I have my way of handling people, and you have yours - that’s all there is to it. You’ve got to believe more in yourself, Haise. And besides,” Hide’s voice drops to an almost inaudible mutter. “I’ve had a lot of practice.”

Haise turns to stare at him. “In being optimistic?”

Hide doesn’t answer, seemingly too lost in his own thoughts to do so. Haise has never seen him wear that face before. It gives him a slight sting in his chest, seeing Hide look so pensive. He did mention before that they were more similar than he thinks, didn’t he? Maybe he’s right. Maybe they’re both struggling as much as the other, in their own ways.

“Hide,” Haise says, studying his own warped reflection on the surface of his coffee. He swallows his reluctance and continues; “When this is all over, there’s something I want to tell you.”

“Is it a love confession?” Hide rapidly reverts to his usual carefree self, but the wistfulness lingers in his amber eyes. Haise cracks a smile despite himself, and lightly punches his forearm.

“Idiot,” he says, earning himself a chuckle from the blond. Their mirth quickly fades away, a fragile sort of ease taking its place. “It’s about me. There are some things that I think you have the right know.”

Hide nods. “Okay.”

And the words are out before Haise could stop himself. “So in return, do you think you can tell us a little more about yourself?”

“I..” For a brief moment, Hide hesitates. Haise watches him struggle with his internal dilemma, noting the way he purses his lips and taps his fingers against his cup. It takes roughly a minute for Hide to find his resolve and answer. “Yeah. I’ll do that.”

“Thank you,” Haise says, trying hard to force down the sudden feeling of guilt and regret that’s manifesting within him. Perhaps he shouldn’t have said that, shouldn’t have sounded so childishly curious. Everyone has things to hide, things they don’t want to share with the world. He shouldn’t have asked. He should’ve just waited for him to tell them himself instead of being so forceful and-

“Haise.” Hide’s voice jerks him out of his train of thoughts. Haise flinches, nearly spilling his coffee in the process. “Haise, calm down. It’s okay. I don’t mind telling you guys my backstory; it’s only fair since you’re going to tell me yours.” He smiles softly and brushes the back of his fingers against his cheek, his touch so tender that it merely feathers above the other boy’s skin. “So don’t make that face, alright?”

He then abruptly registers what he’s doing, and quickly retracts his hand, awkwardly clearing his throat as he glances away. “S-Sorry.”

Haise could only hope he isn’t as red as he thinks he is. “It’s fine.”

“So anyway,” Hide manages to casually change the topic after chugging down his beverage in a few large gulps. “You think it’s about time for us to head down to the lobby? The kids must be tired of waiting for us by now.”

“They know how to amuse themselves,” Haise assures, finishing his own drink. He stands up and heads to discard the crumpled paper cup into the bin provided. “Either way, we better go. I’m planning on starting the training sessions today.”

“You’re really looking forward to handing the Quinx their asses, aren’t you?” Hide asks wryly, moving to match his companion’s strides down the hallway. Haise peers at him through the corner of his eye, a tiny smirk making its way to his lips.

“You think?”

xXx

Haise’s aching in about fifty different places, but his body hadn’t felt this light in a while.

The training sessions are going on pretty well; the meetings are usually held in the mornings and they’d have the rest of the day to themselves. The kids were eventually showing improvement (even Saiko finally got motivated to move by Hide, who’d suggested for her to imitate the actions of the characters in her fighting games) but it’s still not enough. They still had the tendency to be reckless and overly aggressive; only knowing how to charge right in without paying attention to the other factors that could decide the outcome of their fights.

And don’t even get him started on their coordination. If they worked in pairs, one of them could be long dead before the other could realize it. Teamwork had never been one of the Quinx’s strong points. Shirazu’s too focused on solely taking down the enemy before him and Mutsuki flinches a lot, creating a lot of lag time between his movements. Urie’s overconfident and Saiko attempts maneuvers someone of her size and physical ability can never execute without proper practice.

But at least they’re improving, little by little. Haise found himself struggling to defend against three people at once by the fourth day of their training. They’re learning. The stubborn kids are learning from their mistakes.

Though they still had a long way to go. Their agreement was that once Haise deems them capable enough, he’d let them go at him with their kagune. It’s been little more than a week since they began their training, but he doesn’t even want to think about that yet. As long as they hadn’t mastered the basics, they wouldn’t survive in a life or death situation even if they had weapon. It would be no different from letting an inexperienced child walk into a battlefield holding a spell-enhanced sword.

The only one among them who could scarcely stand his ground against him is, as you would already have guessed, Hide. Haise could tell from his reflexes and the precision of his movements that he’d been in quite a number of fights before. His rank isn’t just for show, it seems. Hide’s body isn’t built for brute strength, but he’s lean and fast; cleverly ducking into Haise’s blind spots before trying to land a hit mainly on his vital spots. His defense is decent and his feints are convincing. He’s also good at keeping his cool and analyzing his situation before acting.

But what Haise finds truly intimidating about Hide as they sparred, is his ability to accurately foresee his opponent’s movements. Hide sees and memorizes the patterns to his foe’s attacks at an amazing speed, and he doesn’t have any qualms about using that against them. Haise’s current record is seven wins, four draws and one loss. Hide had caught him off guard in that one defeat.

“Maybe we should focus a little more on their evasion skills,” Hide suggests as they strolled down the street, lifting his arms and placing his hands behind his head like some manga character. “They’d have to learn how to bail out of facing ghouls that are beyond their level and leave the rest to their superiors.”

“Yeah,’ Haise says, a little absently. He doesn’t realize it himself, but he’s staring at that one spot on Hide’s left upper arm. When they’re training, Hide occasionally wears tank tops instead of t-shirts because he thought life would be boring without any variation. As a result, the scar which he’d usually been concealing under his sleeves is bared for the world to see; an irregular spot of stretched and slightly paler skin just below his bicep. Haise had felt his breath catch in his throat the first time he saw it; much to a reason he could not fathom. When the kids asked about it, Hide hadn’t been secretive.

“I got it while trying to protect my most precious person!” he’d proclaimed, his proud grin warm and radiant like sunshine. The scar isn’t something he’s embarrassed about, that’s for certain.

“But you really don’t go easy on us, huh?” Hide says, returning his hands to his sides to stuff them into his pockets. Haise notices how he’d barely stopped himself from cringing visibly. He doesn’t comment; he’s not the only person Hide spars with, after all. He figures he must be quite banged up from all the impact he’d received from countless blows and falling on the hard, wooden floor. Haise tries not to pity him. Hide’s not the only one bruised all over.

“Neither would ghouls when their lives are on the line,” Haise tells him simply, shifting his gaze to look straight ahead. Putting their lives on the line mostly sums up how it is to be a ghoul investigator. Every case, every battle carries the risk of death. The strong survive and the weak are eliminated, that’s just how it works.

Which is why Haise’s stomach is a jumbled mess of nerves just thinking about the night of the auction. Would they be strong enough? Would he be able to protect everyone and keep them from getting killed? Would he be forced to use his kagune again?

And if that happens, would he lose control again?

“Well, you’ve got a point there,” Hide says, following his line of sight. He sounds oblivious to Haise’s inner conflict, much to the latter’s relief. “Now that I think it of it, there’s always one way to lower the risks of letting the kids face the stronger ghouls.”

Haise silently prompts him to continue, but Hide shakes his head. “Someone might hear us out here. I’ll tell you when we get back.”

If he’s trying to distract him from his worries by keeping him in suspense, unfortunately, it’s working. Haise’s thoughts are a little muddled from the anxiety of having to face whatever they’re going to face roughly five days from now, and it’s honestly embarrassing. He has the feeling that Hide’s idea is actually something very straightforward, something even he could’ve thought of if he could calm himself down.

The odd pair enters a fairly busy café, their entrance greeted by the ring of the bell above the door. Haise scans the crowd for a familiar face. Juuzou should already be here by now..

“There he is,” Hide pipes up, cocking his chin towards one of the tables by the windows. Haise turns to where he’s indicating, and his expression brightens when he spots the short dark-haired investigator.

“Juuzou-kun!” he calls as they approach his table. Juuzou snaps out of whatever daydream he’s in and immediately focuses his gaze on the two newcomers.

“Haise, you’re here!” he waves elaborately despite the small distance between them, biting a fork between his teeth as he speaks. His eyes shift towards Hide. “And you’re..”

“Rank 1 Investigator, Nagachika Hideyoshi,” Hide introduces himself, realizing that he’d never actually had the chance to do so with Juuzou before this. He wasn’t present during the private meetings with his squad in the 13th Ward and they usually went home as soon as the recent conferences are over to start training, leaving him no time to stay behind to get to know the members of the other teams a bit. Not that he minds that much. “Just Hide’s fine, though.”

“Associate Special Class, Suzuya Juuzou,” Juuzou stands and takes an awkward bow. “It’s nice meeting you.”

“Likewise,” Hide returns, smiling amiably. “Though it’s not the first time we’re seeing each other.”

Juuzou studies his features as he and Haise seat themselves, his large, curious eyes unblinking. He then tilts his head slightly to the side in question. “Say, weren’t you that part-time errand boy working in CCG’s branch office in the 20th Ward a few years back?”

Haise blinks. 20th Ward? Errand boy?

“Ahh, so you do remember me,” Hide says sheepishly, scratching his cheek. “I didn’t think you would since we’ve never had the chance to  talk properly. Your memory’s amazing, Suzuya-san!”

“Thank you,” Juuzou giggles, pleased with the compliment. He cuts off another piece from the slice of cake on his plate with his fork and stuffs it into his mouth. “So what did you guys call me out here to talk about?”

It’s scary how quickly the light atmosphere around them disappears.

“Juuzou-kun,” Haise starts, lowering his voice to a whisper. He subconsciously clenches his hands on the table. “Before anything, we’d like to request for you to keep today’s discussion a secret from everyone else.”

He waits for Juuzou to consent  before resuming. “It’s about the plan which we’ll be carrying out several nights from now. We’re here to inform you that Rank 1 Nagachika would be joining the infiltration alongside you and Rank 3 Mutsuki during the auction.”

“You’re disobeying orders?” Juuzou asks, raising his eyebrows. He sounds amused rather than accusing. Like he couldn’t believe Haise of all people was going to go against his superiors.

“The more, the merrier, right?” Hide says, his laugh sounding a little strained. “I know having me as an addition wouldn’t make that much of a difference if worst comes to worst , but-“

“It’s about Mutsuki-kun, isn’t it?” Juuzou guesses, resting his cheek on his palm. Reluctantly, his companions nod. “It’s alright; I’m not offended. But why tell me?”

“We figured it’s best to notify you beforehand in case you wouldn’t recognize me when I’m in disguise,” Hide answers, tracing the wooden pattern of the table with his finger. “Also, it’s better for you to know that you’ve got an extra person to work with.”

“Hmm.” Juuzou reaches to adjust his crooked hairclip. “I see.”

“We wholeheartedly apologize if you find our decision impudent,” Haise says, bending into a slight bow in sync with his blond colleague. “But once again - I’ll ask of this as your friend this time -  please keep this a secret from anyone else. Hide and I will bear the full responsibilities of our actions when the operation has come to an end, so please pretend that you’ve never heard a word about this if they question you.”

Juuzou’s silent for a long while before he speaks again. “I understand.”

Haise lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “Thank you so, so much, Juuzou-kun,” he says, looking up at him gratefully. Juuzou beams, making a dismissive gesture with his hand.

“It’s no big deal,” he says in all earnestness. He then leans a little forward on his seat. “Though there is one thing.”

Haise arches his eyebrows. “What is it?”

Juuzou chews on another piece of cake. “Stop with the formalities with me next time if we’re meeting outside of work, okay? It feels weird.”

xXx

Basically, the plan works like this; Mutsuki and Juuzou will go into the auction wearing tracking devices that are installed into the ear studs they’d be wearing. Because the event will most likely be held underground, this precaution is necessary for the others to pinpoint their location in order to find them and hand them their Quinque. The devices are also equipped with one-way microphones that are connected directly to the command center for them to issue the orders to begin the raid at the right timing. When all hell has broken lose, Mutsuki and a few other investigators are in charge of bringing the other victims to safety before returning inside to join the battle themselves. The rest are to stay and fight.

As for Hide’s challenge of slipping in without being noticed by the higher-ups beforehand, he’s in luck because every investigator is assigned to work with their own squads, therefore giving him the chance to tweak the original plans to suit his favor without having to worry about who he could  trust and who he could not. Hide will go in earlier than the other two, and the three of them will meet up in whatever place the Nutcracker will be keeping them in before presenting them to her buyers. As he’d told Mutsuki almost a fortnight ago: it’ll be too late to stop him by the time his absence is noticed. Haise and the rest of the Quinx will have to cover for him and take over his initial share of fighting.

“And this is just a hunch on my part,” Hide explains, carefully meeting the gazes of each of his team members as he speaks. “But since the attendees are from the upper class, we can presume that a majority of them not overwhelmingly strong. I mean, why spend the extra energy doing the dirty work and soiling your hands when you have the money to simply buy some meat from your suppliers? At any rate, facing them will hopefully be less dangerous than facing the bodyguards.”

“Which is why we can do this: I’ll take the lead by charging in first to take down the guards. Shirazu-kun will back me up with his long-ranged attacks if necessary,” Haise takes over while Hide stops for a breath. “Urie-kun will defend the rear, and Saiko-chan’s responsible for alerting the team if she hears incoming reinforcements and the like. Also, keep in mind that Hide’s hypothesis about the classy ghouls being slightly weaker is merely a guess. Just because they’re rich doesn’t mean there are zero possibilities of any higher rated ghouls being among them. If you happen to stumble upon an opponent that’s obviously stronger than you, don’t face them alone. Pride means nothing when you’re dead. Regroup immediately, and we’ll think of something then. Is that clear?”

He receives several grave nods as a response.

“I will face the full consequences for defying orders along with Haise,” Hide says next, ignoring the bewildered stares he receives from his younger teammates at his statement. “As such, there’s no need for any of you to worry about your chances on getting a promotion or anything like that. Hell, you’ll all be doing us a favor by denying about being told any of this in advance.”

“But-“ Shirazu’s protest is cut off by the slight raise of Haise’s hand.

“We won’t change our minds no matter what you say,” he tells him, his words firm. His expression then softens, and he abruptly changes the topic, evidently refusing to hear any further objections. “Oh, and before I forget, tomorrow’s the final day for you guys to submit your wills. If you’ve not written one yet, tonight’s your last chance. That’s all.”

Haise maintains his composure until everyone else has filed out of the room before exhaling a long breath through his mouth. He focuses on the document he holds in his hands and frowns at the near nonsensical scribbles on its parched surface. Less than forty-eight hours until the auction. Even with all the preparations they’d made, he still has a bad feeling about the entire mission. Something’s bound to go wrong, he knows that. Nothing ever goes a hundred percent according to plan. Nothing’s ever that predictable. The only doubt he has now is whether or not he’ll be able to deal with those unexpected circumstances without making things worse for both himself and his colleagues.

“You’re still here?”

Haise blinks out of his thoughts to the sound of Hide’s voice, disorientated for a moment. Had he been there alone for a long while? Strange. It felt like only a few minutes to him.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, watching the blond settle down on the sofa opposite of him. He works to not let his apprehension show on his face. Hide would probably chide him if he notices he’s being worried over everything again.

“Nothing much,” Hide says, spending two seconds to inspect his own fingernails before letting his attention flicker towards him. “You nervous about the big day?”

“That goes without saying.” Haise sighs, his entire body seemingly deflating along with his release of air.

“Me too,” Hide confesses with a huff, promptly receiving a wide-eyed stare from the other boy. “What - is that really so hard to believe?”

Haise notices the tinge of edginess in his laugh for the first time that night. “I’m sorry you’ll have to go through so much trouble,” he finds himself saying, though he knows there’s actually nothing to apologize for.

“Only as much as everyone else.” Hide shrugs one shoulder. “I’m doing it because I want to, so no worries.”

“Hide.” There’s a rather sudden change in Haise’s tone of voice that compels Hide to look at him. Their eyes meet, and Haise holds his companion’s gaze. “Take care of yourself when you’re in there.”

“I will,” Hide promises after a short pause. The corners of his lips lift into a small smile. “You be careful too, buddy.”

“Now it truly does feels like we’re going to war, doesn’t it?” Haise jokes halfheartedly because he honestly has no idea how else he’s going to keep the building pressure from getting to him right then. He chews on his bottom lip in an attempt to constrain his fear towards the what-ifs that haunt his mind. Breathe, he orders himself. Breathe, Haise.

“It’ll be over before we know it,” Hide tells him, as though reading his thoughts. He stands up and take a couple of steps forward, holding out a piece of paper folded into a neat rectangle. “Here’s my testament, by the way.” When Haise accepts it, he adds; “Feel free to read it if you’re curious.”

“Why would I want to-“ Haise begins, but Hide’s already heading to the door, announcing over his shoulder that it’s late and that he’s going to sleep. Haise couldn’t figure out how Hide’s always so good at directing his concentration away from his uncertainties. Despite knowing how unprofessional he’s being by doing it, Haise finally gives in to the temptation of sneaking a peek at the blond’s will after more than a minute of contemplation. He wouldn’t put it past him for writing something ridiculous even in his potential death message.

But Hide hadn’t been as unnecessarily playful as he’d expected him to be this time. Haise stares at the lone three words that decorate the blank canvas, temporarily dumbfounded.  

“I won’t die.”

Hide had written bold declaration rather than a final wish. 

Chapter Text

Being a coward is hard.

Trying not to be one is even harder.

Of course Mutsuki’s scared. He could barely fight with his Quinque, let alone defend himself barehanded if the situation ever leads to that. He knows he should be feeling a little more at ease with Suzuya and Hide being there with him. He’s being backed up by such talented and skillful superiors. Maybe things wouldn’t be as bad, right?

Right?

All Mutsuki feels is dread. The dread of being weak, the dread of being a burden. More than anything, perhaps even more than the aspect of death, Mutsuki’s afraid of dragging his teammates down. Once is more than enough. He still secretly blamed himself for Sasaki’s loss of control over his kagune during his faceoff with Serpent. If only he was stronger. If only he’d been able to activate his own kagune and join in the fight. Then perhaps he, Shirazu and Urie would’ve stood a chance. Then perhaps Sasaki wouldn’t have been forced to intervene.

Mutsuki is spoiled and he knows that. He doesn’t dare make any presumptions on Associate Special Class Suzuya’s morals and behavior, but he knows Hide would risk everything to protect him - prideful as he is to think so. His reasons for being so hard-bent on sneaking into the auction can never be clearer. Tooru isn’t strong. Tooru is scared. Don’t let Tooru get hurt. He’ll be saved and pampered and in return, someone else will suffer the damage.

Again.

At some point, Mutsuki wasn’t even sure anymore if he should appreciate the blond’s concern or simply feel offended. Does he really think he’s hopeless to that extent? That he’d freeze up with fear the moment he’s forced to battle a bloodthirsty ghoul? Well, he’s absolutely right. The sole thought of having to fight a ghoul with their kagune lashing and their mouth foaming and their eyes gleaming red and black is enough to give him nightmares and make him wish he could wallow into a hole on the ground and stay there until the grass accepts him as part of their diet.

The notion of being the centre of attention of hundreds of twisted gazes scrutinizing every inch of his body doesn’t make anything better.

It’s exhausting to pretend being brave when he’s anything but. Mutsuki utterly fails in making himself believe in the confidence of his own words in the beginning. ‘We can’t keep going like this’? ‘We just have to try our best’? The safety of their lives aren’t ensured by just ‘trying their best’. Optimism doesn’t change the fact that they could very well die any minute in that operation.

Then again, Mutsuki realizes on first the day Sasaki brought them to the training hall at the back of their home to fling them around and basically wreck them left and right, isn’t it about time for him to break the loop that he’s been trapped in since the massacre of his family? Isn’t it about time for him to change the old I’m-weak-so-people-got-hurt-or-died-protecting-me routine? He can fight too. It has never been decided otherwise. He’s not good at it, but he can fight and struggle just like everyone else.

Now if only fears and phobias are something that could be so easily conquered.

Being thrown all over the place and having even his smallest errors pointed out did wonders destroying his self-esteem, but Mutsuki couldn’t say he didn’t enjoy the training sessions. In fact, he’d sought solace in the lessons, treating them as a way to vent out his frustration, his anxiety, his loathing towards his own helplessness. He’d put everything into his punches, his kicks and his lunges, and Sasaki had intercepted, deflected and returned each one of it with every bit as much fervor. Mutsuki had hit the floor so many times that he’s pretty sure some of the polish had rubbed off on his skin, but over and over, he clenches his teeth and forces himself to stand up once more. It’s time for him to push his impotence aside and stop relying on others.

It’s time for him to grow stronger and fight on his own.

Even with all his determination and spirit and all that stuff, Sasaki’s regimen was brutal; possibly because he couldn’t afford to take things easy with the limited time they had before the event. Beating the right moves into them might just be the fastest way to teach them - though it did come with a lot of pain and sores later on. Mutsuki remembers how he’d spent the nights sleeping as still as his body would allow because everything ached so much he could barely feel his limbs.

While Sasaki’s training focused mainly on offense and orthodox moves, Hide tutored them on defensive and evasive techniques, as well as some ‘side dishes’, as he’d called them. There’s much more to a real fight than merely exchanging fists, he’d said as he casually struck out at them without warning and expected them to either stop or dodge his blow. In a real fight, lots of dirty tricks would be involved as well; blinding, distracting, delaying. Mutsuki managed to fare well under Hide’s tutelage because he’s apparently quite the nimble lad, but the others hadn’t been as lucky. Urie once ducked Hide’s assault towards his face only to be jabbed in the belly and sent falling butt-first to the ground. Shirazu got tripped and faceplanted so often Mutsuki swears it couldn’t be healthy. Saiko.. he had no comments. At least she bothered moving.

Though training did provide him a temporary distraction from his upcoming predicament, Mutsuki couldn’t say he’s prepared to face what’s to come. At all. He lies awake on his bed right now, gazing blankly at the ceiling above him. He has entered this certain phase of numb acceptance, feeling exactly nothing. Like how it always is on the day right before a huge exam when you just think ‘Ah, screw it I’ve done all I can!’ and choose to spend the rest of the day relaxing instead of attempting some last-minute cramming. Mutsuki’s also positive that like school exams, the panic would set in later when he’s facing the actual thing.  

The auction is tomorrow night. The victims are supposed to gather by half past five in the evening to be captured. Mutsuki and Juuzou would be showing themselves at around five. Hide plans to disappear right after roll call. The rest of CCG’s forces have to wait until a little after the event begins before they’re able to put the plan to motion. Timing is crucial in this operation. Arriving too early would raise suspicion. Arriving too late would risk more lives being lost.

Mutsuki shuts his eyes and wills himself to stop thinking about it. They’ve done all they can to prepare. It’s too late for regrets, too late to chicken out. All he can do now is hope for the best. All he can do now is hope he’d have the power to do things right when the time comes.

It takes him a long while before he’s finally able to slip into a fitful slumber.

xXx

At least they didn’t have to wake up early on the day of the operation.

Not that it makes a difference when all of them hardly slept a wink. Hide could tell, judging from the bleary eyes and big yawns and dark circles, that his squad is tensed up for the day ahead. He himself lost sleep because he kept envisioning all kinds of possible scenarios that could take place during the auction and trying to come up with countermeasures. By the time he decided to tell his brain to shut up and just take things one at a time, it’s already dawn. Ironically, Hide’s reminded of his teen days when he would relentlessly play video games the entire night only to realize it’s already morning when the credits are rolling.

In retrospect, he remembers how he always seems to be even more energetic than usual the day following an all-nighter, weirdly enough. He would feel alive and great but when evening approaches he’d be barely holding himself up. Which, isn’t actually as bad as it sounds because they’d be hanging out in their usual spot at the park and Kaneki would let him lean on his shoulder and nap while he contentedly immerses himself in yet another novel and-

Wokayyy. His thoughts are straying way off track. Hide slaps his palms against his cheeks a few times. He mustn’t lose concentration. The point is that he would probably be affected by fatigue when the auction starts - but he figures his adrenaline would be at its peak, so he’ll be fine.

“I can never understand why they chose white as the CCG’s official color,” Hide muses as they’re preparing to leave the chateau, slipping his arms into the sleeves of his coat. He resists the urge to shiver and snuggle against the warmth of the garment once he’s clad in it. “Do they even know how crazy difficult it is to scrub blood and dirt off white fabric and return it to its initial glory? I swear.”

“Won’t some bleach be enough to do the trick?” Shirazu inquires, shrugging on his own coat. The others only listen on in silence, mildly amused by how pointless and laidback their conversation is. It’s baffling how they manage to keep the air around them light despite their own tension.

“Fool, you’ll destroy the quality of your clothes that way,” Hide gives the younger boy an incredulous look and tells him gravely. He keeps their gazes locked, his hands working to button himself up. “And bleach is a threat to both nature and humanity. The stuff’s practically mass-produced toxic!”

No one bothers asking what he has against bleach. Heck, his hair is bleached.

“We can always get new ones to replace the clothes we ruined,” Haise suggests, making some adjustments to his collar. “We won’t need to pay for them since the CCG’s going to recompense any of our belongings that are damaged during missions.”

“Haise, Haise.” Hide shakes his head as if pitying his ignorance. “You’re getting it all wrong, buddy. It’s not about the money; it’s about the bond between us and our outfits! Discarding old clothes is like throwing away friends that’d been through hell and back with you, don’t you think?”

 “Not really..?”

Hide sighs, disappointed in his lack of empathy towards his garments. He can’t exactly blame him, however. Ghoul investigators cannot afford to harbor excessive feelings of attachment because of the nature of their job. They had a lot of things to lose, working for the CCG. Keeping themselves distant is the only way to make letting go easier.

“At least we won’t be wearing our usual uniform during the operation since we’ll be changing into battle gear later,” Haise says, half to humor Hide and half to simply keep the conversation going. He knows that if silence befalls them, it’ll be heavy, suffocating. “And we’ll be wearing dark colors so we won’t need to worry about stains?”

His last sentence somehow ended up sounding like a question, but Hide isn’t bothered.

“Stains are a small problem when everything’s in tatters,” he agrees thoughtfully, holding the door open for the rest of his team to file outside. “Maybe the old guys in charge should start considering the idea of investing in the development of extra resilient material for our battle gear so we can reuse them more often. The current expenditure on clothes alone must be absurd.”

“I think it’ll cost slightly less since they’re buying them in bulk?” Unexpectedly, Mutsuki joins in the conversation. Hearing his voice, Hide exchanges a brief look with Haise, and they both break into smiles. It’s working. They’re slowly able to take their minds off the operation and relax a bit. It doesn’t matter even though it’s temporary. As long as they can keep their spirits up, it’s enough.

Fortunately for them, Hide had always been the chatty type and he has no problem in keeping the small talk going throughout their ride to the main building. If they refrained from thinking about it, it’d feel like just another normal day of heading to work; attending some meetings, doing some discussions, finishing up some paperwork and going home. If they didn’t think too much into it, it doesn’t feel like they’ll be risking their lives in a massive ghoul extermination a few hours later.

But reality is a harsh, harsh thing. It’s difficult to keep pretending there’s nothing going on when the facts are glaring at them in the face. There are a dozen vans parked around CCG’s headquarters when Haise veers their car into the courtyard. Solemn faces greet them wherever they look; newbie investigators who are terrified on their first large operation, veteran investigators who no longer felt the crippling fear of putting their lives on the line, investigators who simply want to get everything over and done with so they could return in time for the broadcast of the night news.

The pressure doesn’t really sink in until they’re inside. The minute he takes a step through the automatic glass doors, it promptly becomes difficult to breathe, and Hide physically feels his heart taking a dive down to where his stomach is. He remembers this sensation from the raid almost three years ago - only it had been worse then. It’d taken Hide’s everything just to keep himself moving that time. Now all he has to do is resist the urge to grab a comforter off the sofas in the lobby and scream into it.

The leaders of the squads on duty are to gather at the conference room for one final briefing, so Haise and Shirazu take their leave first. Meanwhile, the rest of the team members are given their uniforms and directed to changing rooms. Hide weighs the package in his hands as he inspects the folded attire, wondering halfheartedly if he could somehow blend it in with his disguise later. Probably not. Nut’s invitation doesn’t mention anything about a dress code, but he figures he should still look decent since it is supposed to be a posh event, ulterior motives aside. He can’t have them denying him access just because of his sloppy outfit.

“Hide-san,” Mutsuki speaks as Hide’s stuffing his original clothes into a locker. The latter pauses from his task, and turns to face him, eyebrows raised. He realizes that Mutsuki has changed into a dress; though unlike before, he manages to hide his discomfort well this time.

“Yeah?” Hide asks, shutting the metal door behind him. Mutsuki holds his gaze, his shoulders set.

“I’ll do my best to play my part well today,” he says, and Hides feels himself smiling, despite everything. “So umm-“

“Let’s work hard, Tooru,” Hide tells him cheerily, reaching to gently pat the top of his head. Mutsuki’s eyes widen by a fraction before he does a jerky nod.

“Y-Yes!”

“You too, Kuki.” Hide lets his hand fall back to his side and turns to his dark-haired subordinate. Urie doesn’t respond, but Hide’s aware that he doesn’t like him calling him by his given name. Perhaps he should save that until he’s able to warm up to him. It wouldn’t do him good to stay in the guy’s bad side forever. “Even though you got an upgrade, don’t be reckless, okay?”

Silence. Then Urie lets out a soft grunt, and if Hide’s ill-fated enough to get himself killed tonight he would have one less regret because holy shit he actually answered him. Hide’s positive he’s still beaming like an idiot when Haise and Shirazu rejoins them around five minutes later, their expressions grim.

“We’ve reported for duty just now,” Haise informs the rest of his squad members, taking in the sight of them in their gear. “We’re free to take a break at the moment, so if you guys feel hungry or anything, now’s the time to eat up.”

“I think I might puke if I eat now,” Shirazu admits, tugging his tie off his neck after coming to a stop before an empty locker. “I mean, I can’t even feel my stomach.”

“You’ll still need a little food for the energy, Shirazu-kun.” Haise walks over and joins him, exhaling a breath through his nose. Frankly, he felt like puking too. “We should head down to the cafeteria later. Just having some bread is better than nothing.”

“Well, if you guys are okay with it, I can always make a dash to the nearest convenience store to get us some proper snacks,” Hide suggests casually, winking when his companions turn to stare at him. Haise gives him a small frown, like, “Is it time?” and Hide nods subtly, taking heed of the presence of the other investigators around them.

“Get me a meatbun, Hide-san,” Shirazu requests, pulling on the gray long-sleeved cotton shirt distributed to him. “And some grape juice would be awesome, too.”

“Didn’t you just say you’d gag if you eat?” Hide chuckles. He appreciates how the younger boy’s trying to play along in his own way, nonetheless. “Anything else you guys want?”

Mutsuki reluctantly asks for some oreos while Urie opts to not take up his offer. Haise tells him he’ll just have cafeteria food.

“Saiko-chan might want something, though,” he adds before Hide could start his way. “Maybe you should ask her before you go.”

“I’ll do that.” Hide grins, moving backwards towards the door with a bounce in his steps as though he had to hurry. “I’ll be right back.”

And before the others had the chance to tell him to be careful one last time, he’s gone.

xXx

Trying to convince Akira that he isn’t going to run away took him more time than he thought it would.

But Hide’s pretty smooth at times and he might have stepped up his sympathy game (“What if this is my last chance to have some Pocky!?”) and he always knew Akira had a soft spot for him somewhere, so he manages to make his authorized escape from the building without any further issues.

He strides across the street, marking the nearest Lawson as his destination. He’s aware that he stands out in his dull black and gray battle gear, but hey - Hide wore bright and loud clothes all his life for the same reason. He ignores the hushed whispers of passers-by when they spot the logo on his vest, holding his head high. He lets the cold breeze prick his cheeks and sift through his hair, taking comfort in the feeling of peace while he still had it. In roughly twenty minutes, things will be so hectic he’d barely have the time to breathe.

Hide greets the employee behind the counter as soon as he enters the store, sauntering right to the very back. Good thing he’d been friends with the guy for a while now; or else he wouldn’t have trusted him enough to ask for his cooperation and silence, nor would he be able to use their backdoor so offhandedly. His satchel lies untouched where he left it two days earlier in a cardboard box among the store’s stock. Hide fetches his belongings, waves his thanks, and exits into an alley.

Hide has done enough exploring to navigate through the back streets without getting himself lost and dizzy from all the corners and turns. He slips from one passageway to another, finally coming to a stop at a particularly secluded area. If CCG’s main headquarters isn’t located so close, he figures it’d be a favorable hunting ground for ghouls during the night. As it is, Hide sees nothing but remnants of human activity; pieces broken beer bottles on the ground, some hypodermic needles probably left by drug addicts (yikes), a dirty handkerchief - all sorts of weird and random stuff.

Hide sets his bag on the ground and gets right down to business; changing clothes so quickly he surprised himself. The temperature’s a good motivator; he thought he’d be frozen solid if he spent even one extra second standing around in his underclothes. He dons his trusty flats after removing his sneakers, and temporarily setting his combat attire aside, he pulls out his hair band and proceeds to do his makeup.

Hide has had enough practice in the past two weeks to master the art of eyelining and complete beautifying his face within ten minutes while he’s standing. Haise and the others will do their best to stall for time if necessary, but Hide still refuses to risk staying stationary any longer than he needs to. Though he knows it’s unlikely for the CCG to track down investigators who decide to go missing at the eleventh hour before a big mission because it’s such a common occurrence, he stays wary. It would be downright mortifying to be dragged back now after all his big talk and promises.

After returning his cosmetics into his bag, Hide reaches to slip on a modified bobby pin beneath a layer of hair on the back of his head. It’d fall off if he moves too roughly without his wig, but it’s better than nothing. It’s the only way Haise can find (or to the very least, guess) his location in case he gets separated from the other two during the auction.

Hide does one final check to make sure everything’s in place before pulling on his wig - thank goodness it isn’t tangled, Jesus - and shoving everything he doesn’t need into his satchel. He then fishes out a packet of pills from one of its compartments, retrieves a couple of tablets, and swallows them dry. He cringes as he keeps the packet back into its original place. He could probably never be able to get used to the bitter aftertaste. With a sigh, he puts his belongings inside an empty wooden crate, makes a mental note to come back for them later, and resumes his journey.

Hide has never appreciated the warmth provided by long hair more than he does now. Even with his extra undershirt and leggings (he’d learnt his lesson), he shivers every time the wind blows. The fact that he’s brisk-walking down the streets doesn’t make anything better. Hide slightly regrets not getting a jacket to go with his disguise. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so stingy in the first place. His wages are decent and he wouldn’t need to worry about paying rents and bills anymore now that he’d moved in with the Quinx squad. He should’ve gotten a jacket.

The blond barely conceals his relief as soon as he steps into the train, grateful for the heaters in the carriage. He occupies an empty seat at the two-seaters and tucks the bottom of his dress under his legs, minding the men sitting in front of him. He might be a guy himself, but he still finds being peeped up his skirt very uncomfortable.

Hide leans back and loosely hugs his elbows as the train starts moving, gazing at the moving scenery outside. It’s strangely quiet without his music. He stifles another sigh and tries not to yearn for his headphones. Without the distraction of his favorite tracks, Hide’s thoughts start to wander. However, instead of doing more mental reviews on his coming operation, he ponders about the conversation he’s going to have with Haise once the it’s over. Worrying, even. He could already guess what the latter’s going to tell him - that he’s a half-ghoul and that he can’t remember his past and all that - but what about his own share of talking? How much should he reveal? How much could he reveal?

If it’s left to him, of course Hide would want to tell him everything. He’d describe every single day from the moment they met as children till the moment they reunited as strangers down to the littlest detail. He’d tell him how they were once best friends who meant the world to each other, he’d yell at him for carrying his burdens alone and pushing himself away from him. He’d tell him things he could never bring himself to say when he had the chance.

Sadly, the choice is not his to make. The very first condition the CCG gave him in their agreement is that he’s forbidden to tamper with Sasaki Haise’s forgotten memories in any way. No matter how badly Hide wants his best friend back, he can’t. Besides, it’d been his own decision to make Kaneki forget. If he brought back everything now, wouldn’t his own efforts go to waste? Wouldn’t it all be just for nothing?

Hide had been watching Kaneki’s process ever since the time the latter woke up in his hospital bed with bandages still wrapped across his ruined eyes. He’d seen how he’d slowly recovered and began fitting in with the people in the CCG, how he eventually managed to overcome his own insecurities and actually started enjoying himself after a while. And Hide had fought back the nagging ache in his heart and made himself believe that it’s for the best, that it’s alright even though that vibrant smile isn’t for him. He thought he’d be okay with losing his most important person if it meant giving him the happiness he deserved. He thought he wouldn’t mind watching over him from the shadows for the rest of his life.

But then again, is Kaneki truly content with how things are right now? Is the tiny sense of peace he’s granted enough to compensate for everything the CCG is doing to him? For the distaste from those who are jealous of his abilities and from those who knew the truth? For the indirect brainwashing? Is this fragile security worth the price of letting the CCG hone and shape him into their ultimate weapon? 

It’s been years, and Hide’s still conflicted. Was the second chance he tried to give Kaneki a mistake after all?

The train comes to a stop at yet another station, and he inhales a sharp breath to stop his reverie. Whatever happens, he decides, he’d just have to deal with it later and hope his big mouth will cooperate with him for once. He can’t lose focus now. He can’t mull over both the past and the future when he already has so many problems to face in the present. He’ll be fine. He just had to be careful.

He’ll be fine.

xXx

It doesn’t occur to Mutsuki that he’d been neglecting to do something until he’s seated in the car with Juuzou by his side.

The older boy hums softly as he entertains himself by repeatedly braiding and unbraiding his hair, staring absently into space. Looking at him then, Mutsuki could almost believe that the person next to him is just a harmless young girl in her teens who’s into gothic fashion and not a high ranking CCG Investigator whom he’s told is unbelievably strong despite his small stature. In contrast to his own fidgetiness, Associate Special Class Suzuya seems completely calm, showing no signs of nervousness whatsoever towards their impending mission. Sure, he’d probably been assigned to a ton of these big operations before - but is it really natural to look so collected about it? Almost like he didn’t even care?

“You’ve been staring at me for a while now,” Juuzou speaks out of the blue, successfully startling his companion. He stops fiddling with his wig and regards Mutsuki through the corner of his eye. “Something wrong, Rank 3 Mutsuki?”

“A-Ah, not really.” Mutsuki swallows to keep his stutter in check. “I just remembered that I was supposed to ask you to teach me some things about knife-handling.” He winces, and averts his gaze sheepishly. “But I guess I forgot.”

“With all those hours training with Haise, it’s no wonder.” Juuzou shrugs, then turns to look at him properly. “We can always find another day. I think we’ll have some time off after tonight’s raid.”

Mutsuki’s eyes widens at his offer. “Is it really okay? I mean, I’m sure you’re a busy person and-“

“I let Hanbee and the rest of the guys handle the paperwork, so it’s fine,” Juuzou says breezily, as though avoiding his duties is the most natural thing to do. “Just give me a call before you come over. I’ll see if I’m free then.”

“Thank you so much!” Mutsuki says, hastily bending into a bow. Juuzou chuckles and asks him to lift his head, telling him it’s no big deal.

“I can even verbally give you some tips right now,” he says, craning his neck a little to glance at the digital clock up front. “There’s still a while left before we reach the site of the auction, anyway.”

“If you don’t mind.” Mutsuki sits a little straighter. He might be an oddball, but Suzuya’s actually a really nice person, huh?

“Hmm,” Juuzou starts, leaning back and tapping his lips in thought. “I guess the most basic thing you’ll need when using knives is flexibility and speed? You can work on the flexibility of your fingers by twirling stationery between them before you move on to actual blades.”

“Did you injure yourself a lot when you were practicing last time?” Mutsuki inquires before he could stop himself. Juuzou shoots him a curious stare.

“Are you scared?” he asks, and Mutsuki blanches. He’s a sharp one.

“A little.”

“It’s alright to be afraid,” Juuzou assures, kicking off his shoes and casually crossing his legs on his seat. “As knife users, we can’t expect to come out unscathed at the beginning. You’ve got to cut up your hands a bit before you can improve.” He pauses. “Now that I think of it, you can even afford to cut your fingers off because they’ll grow back since you’re a Quinx and all.”

Mutsuki gapes at him, wide-eyed. “What?

“Sorry.” Juuzou instantly realizes his mistake. He still had the tendency to unintentionally blurt out the first thing that’s in his mind before thinking it over sometimes. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m really sorry.”

Mutsuki brushes it off the best he can, but the damage has already been done. They fall into silence, and a painful awkwardness hangs in the air. Mutsuki hadn’t expected Suzuya to say those words at all, hadn’t expected him to sound so indifferent about being dismembered. Hadn’t expected him to sound so genuinely remorseful in his apology. Mutsuki realizes there’s more to his superior’s character than he shows. Underneath that childish exterior, there’s something else; possibly something terrifying.

“Suzuya-san,” Mutsuki gathers his courage and breaks the silence. “Forgive me for sounding rude, but I’ve been wondering.”

Juuzou’s gaze flickers to him. “About what?”

“Why did you volunteer to accompany me into the auction to act as bait?” Mutsuki asks after a split second of hesitation. “Wouldn’t it better if you were to contribute in the actual fight instead? What merit would you get from doing this?”

“Merit?” Juuzou blinks. “There’s none.”

“Then why-“

“I’m helping a good friend look after his subordinate who’s in a dangerous situation because he can’t,” Juuzou says simply. “Is that too hard to believe?”

No, no it’s not and Mutsuki hangs his head in shame because what was he doing assuming everything a person does is for their own benefit? When did he become such a narrow-minded idiot?

“I’m sorry, Suzuya-san” he says, honestly meaning it. “I apologize for misunderstanding you.”

“Don’t sweat it. I get that a lot,” Juuzou tells him easily, waving a dismissive hand. “Also, you’re not all wrong, Mutsuki-kun. I am doing this for a reason.”

Looking up, Mutsuki dares himself to ask. “And that is..?”

Juuzou grins, and it’s at that exact moment that Mutsuki notices the wild look in his eyes; as though he had a tad bit too much caffeine that morning.

“You’ll find out when we get there.”

xXx

Except the occasional rattle of equipment and a few sniffles, the inside of their van is silent.

Haise chews his lower lip in an attempt to keep his cool. The tense atmosphere is making him restless. Every ticking second is like an insistent taunt in his ears. Time is running out. They’ll be dead by the time you reach them. You won’t be able to save them. You won’t be able to protect anyone.

Shut up, Haise hisses inwardly, realizing that it’s his inner voice acting up again. He had amazing timing, that guy. He always knew when and how to bother him and mess him up.

To his credit, he’d been completely silent up until today. Haise hadn’t heard him speak a word ever since the night he asked that ambiguous question.

Why?

Why what? What does he mean by that? Why did that single word carry so much emotion, so much.. anguish? Why did he let himself show his vulnerability for the first time that night? Haise had given up trying to figure out.

“Maman.”

Haise glances down to his left at the sound of Saiko’s quiet voice. “Yeah?”

Saiko had lost some weight over their two weeks of training - which is good, he supposes. Investigator or not, being overweight from eating and not exercising is bad for her health. Besides, with her blood circulating a little better now, she’s more alert. She doesn’t fall asleep at every chance she gets and her reaction time has improved somewhat.

“Do you think Mu-chan’s already inside the place right now?” Saiko whispers, tugging at his sleeve. Haise reaches over and gently takes her hand in his own, hoping that his gesture brings her the comfort she needs.

“He probably is,” he says, trying to sound upbeat. He glances at the radar strapped around his wrist, his attention drawn to the unmoving dot on the grid. It hadn’t been easy maintaining eye contact with Akira when he told her the truth. Haise would have a lot of explaining to do with Hide when they get back. Not that they aren’t prepared.

Saiko leans a bit of her weight against him, and Haise lets her. “I hope we’ll make it in time.”

“We will,” Haise assures, though he himself harbors the same doubt. What if the auction starts earlier than they’d anticipated? What if the boys fail to stall for time in there? Haise can’t think about all that; he’d lose his ability to function entirely if he does.

Their vehicle eventually comes to a definite stop, and Haise unconsciously tenses up when a voice cackles to life from the intercom.

“All teams to position. I repeat, all teams to position.”

Simultaneously, Haise and his squad rise from their seats, hefting their Quinque in their hands. Haise carries Juuzou’s, Shirazu carries Mutsuki’s, and Urie’s -grudgingly- in charge of Hide’s. Even in this operation, the Quinx squad’s primary duty is assistance. Their main task is to get the weapons to their respective owners before joining the battle themselves. It sounds simple enough, but the pressure’s still there.

“Remember; if anything happens to me, Shirazu-kun’s in command,” Haise tells his subordinates as they get off their vehicle and move swiftly to their assigned location. The Madam’s auction is held beneath a humongous manor around three times the size of the Quinx’s chateau. To the CCG’s advantage, it is also situated quite some distance away from human residence, making evacuation easier. On the down side, it also made having the ghouls’ gory events undisturbed all this while. “And don’t lose sight of me until we reach Mutsuki-kun and the others.”

“We’ll be right behind you,” Shirazu assures, coming to a crouch beside him behind the bushes. Haise nods in acknowledgement, keeping his eyes trained at the guards standing by the gates.

The investigators lie low and wait; five minutes, ten minutes. They’ll be receiving their signal to proceed any moment now. Haise’s heart beats wildly in his chest, and he clutches the handle of his briefcase a little tighter. He takes a deep breath, forcing the slight tremor in his hands to disappear. He can’t afford to be any more nervous than he is now.

The softest snap of a rifle echoes throughout the silence, and the ghouls by the entrance suddenly fall, hitting the concrete ground below with a dull thud. At the sound of it, dozens of ghoul investigators emerge from their hiding spots and sprint towards the gates, a few among them hurling canisters containing CRC gas into the compound. Haise takes a quick breath and stands up, deftly motioning for his team to follow before charging in himself.

Like it or not, the Auction Wipeout Plan has begun.

Chapter Text

Hide supposes it was a mistake to let them drug him.

Then again, it wasn’t like he had any other choice if he wanted to get in without raising suspicion.

There’s a dull throb in his head and his limbs feel heavy. Hide stays still, working to part his eyelids by the smallest crack. He winces when brightness abruptly floods his vision. Good - he’s not blindfolded. Hide waits for his eyes to adjust before peering around, trying to assess his situation the best he can. Earlier, he had strolled right through the front gates of the manor and was then directed to the back entrance that where he’s told the rest of the part-timers were gathering. The Nutcracker had been standing by the door when he got there and when he’d approached her, Hide was promptly ambushed from behind and was knocked unconscious by the piece of cloth pressed over his nose and mouth.

And so here he is now, with both his hands bound and lips covered with duct tape. Hide figures the excessive use of tape is to minimize the damage on the ‘merchandise’. Ropes and zip ties could leave faint scars whereas shackles and cuffs cut into skin. It wouldn’t do Nuts any good if the girls she’d captured were blemished before she could sell them off for a good price. Hide takes a deep breath, straining his ears, not daring to turn around yet. He’s currently facing the wall, but he knows he’s not alone; he hears the breathing of more people behind him, some deep and even from unconsciousness, some erratic from fear. He also detects some faint whimpers and groans from the ladies around him. How many of them were there in the room?

The more Hide attempts to organize his thoughts, the clearer his mind slowly becomes. There’s a musty smell and a certain stillness in the air; they are probably underground as predicted. Hide guesses there’ll be some guards outside, but the chamber they’re in is probably safe. To most ghouls, humans are harmless enough as they are -  what more of a group of frail, unarmed human females? They’re probably confident in their security as well; seeing how the victims’ legs are unrestrained. The girls gathered here are not expected to make it back outside on their own.

Hide clenches his teeth and twists to sit upright, battling against the additional weight his body seems to be carrying at the moment. He exhales when no one yells at him to return to his original position, relieved that his intuition is right once again. His wig is also still intact - bless him. He shifts to face away from the wall, realizing that the room isn’t actually as bright as he’d initially thought. Apart from the lone fluorescent lamp on the ceiling, there are no other sources of illumination.

The sight of around forty terrified young ladies greets him as soon as he turns around, and Hide swears he could almost taste their despair. Some of them are crying uncontrollably, while some are still in too much shock to react. Those who came with friends stay close to each other. Those who came alone curl up and try to make themselves look as small as possible.

None of them look like they had any hopes of escaping.

Hide searches for familiar faces in the dimly lit room, half wondering if they’d been separated already. Exactly how many of them were the Nutcracker planning to sell? Are there more rooms filled with girls waiting to be auctioned off to a bunch of wealthy ghouls? He honestly hopes not. The rescue team will have a hard time saving so many of them at once, and the risks would undoubtedly be higher.

Hide finally spots Tooru across the room, his visible eye closed and his back leaned against the wall. Sprawled by his side is a girl in black which Hide guesses is Suzuya, judging from the stitches on his bottom lip. Hide silently thanks every god he knows for his burst of luck today. He then waits roughly a minute to make sure the coast is clear before he struggles to get on his feet and stumble to where his colleagues are. It’s better for them stay close to one another; they’ll probably be called out in batches when the auction begins. If they’re going to wreck havoc, they’re going to do it together. Besides, it’ll be easier for Haise and the guys to find them and hand them their Quinque when the times comes.

Hide kneels down on the conveniently empty spot right by Mutsuki and Juuzou, trying to come up with a way to wake them that doesn’t involve any kicking. It doesn’t seem like he had much of a choice; with his hands bound behind his back and his mouth taped shut. Frankly, Hide knows how to escape from duct tape - being a fan of crime novels has its advantages; plus the feat isn’t nearly as difficult as it sounds - but he would only draw more attention upon himself if he breaks free now. He has to keep a low profile until the time is ripe.

Juuzou stirs before Hide’s able to decide on what to do, moving to painstakingly sit himself upright. He stares at Hide once their gazes meet, blinking in surprise and lack of recognition. Hide tries hard to get his message across through his eyes. It’s me, Suzuya-san! It’s Hide!

He swears he could’ve teared up when the other boy finally perks up and nods fervently from his revelation. Hide cocks a chin towards the still unconscious Mutsuki, silently questioning how they should wake him. Without a shred of reluctance, Juuzou stretches out his leg, and persistently nudges the younger boy’s calf until he comes around. Hide watches as Mutsuki cringes slightly before opening his eyes, momentarily disorientated. He quickly registers his superiors’ faces in front of him and immediately snaps into alertness, his entire body stiffening. Hide waggles his eyebrows in greeting.

It’s important for them to be chosen for the first batch that’s going to be auctioned - provided it hasn’t already started while they were still out cold - in order to reduce the loss of more lives. The three investigators exchange a look among themselves and promptly come to a mutual agreement. It’s time to commence the next part of their plan as distracters.

Juuzou stands up unsteadily, and marches straight towards the closed door with Hide and Mutsuki tailing behind him. He then casually starts kicking at the wooden panel, screaming incoherently into the tape across his mouth. The other two joins in the ruckus; wailing loudly and carefully slamming themselves onto the door and generally acting very frantic to get out. The other girls stare at them in bafflement, surprised by their sudden violent outburst. Hide honestly expected one or two of them to join them, but as it turns out, none did. Does the entire situation look that hopeless to them? Perhaps it does - anxiety and panic aren’t exactly the best morale boosters.

Hide eventually detects hurried footsteps approaching their direction; their commotion finally acknowledged.  Though it meant he’s also about to face more danger, Hide feels glad. His throat’s starting to hurt from all his strained high-pitched yelling.

There comes several loud knocks on the door, followed by a gruff voice ordering them to tone down and give it up because nobody could hear their pleas for help anyway. Juuzou kicks harder in retaliation, and Hide could tell from the mirth in his eyes that he’s actually having fun doing this. What a weird guy. Even weirder still is that Hide finds his enthusiasm strangely uplifting. He can’t figure out why.

The trio deftly step back when the door swings open without a warning, the edge of it missing the point of Hide’s nose by a centimeter. A masked, burly man in a suit stands at the entrance, and Hide doesn’t need him to uncover his face to see his sneer.

“Feisty ones we have here, don’t we?” he says, not bothered to hide his scorn. Hide and Mutsuki glare at him in defiance, while Juuzou merely offers him a look of utter disinterest. One could even say he seemed disappointed, but it’s hard to tell.

“Since you ladies are raring to get out of there so badly, why don’t we put you up first?” the suited ghoul muses, his hand shooting out to grab Juuzou’s upper arm at a speed the latter could have no doubt avoided had he been taking him seriously. Hide and the guys could’ve charged straight out and continued their commotion from there, but they choose not to for they aren’t familiar enough with their current location. They wouldn’t be doing themselves any favors getting lost.

The guard’s other hand clutches Mutsuki’s shoulder as he ignores Juuzou’s deliberately feeble kicks. Hide sees that the younger boy’s flinch from the contact had been genuine. The ghoul’s touch seriously made him uncomfortable, and if it wasn’t for their mission Hide would’ve personally trampled the bastard underfoot. As it is, he and a few other girls are subdued by another guard who later entered the room at the first guy’s command, and they are all then ushered through the maze of underground tunnels that could’ve easily led from nowhere to nowhere.

Hide hears the crowd before he sees them. He also hears the Nutcracker’s voice over loudspeakers, brightly announcing the highest bids for various body parts. Hide bites back a curse. There had been people sent to the auction before them. He notices Mutsuki paling when the same realization dawns him, and he wants so badly to tell the boy not to blame himself and that some things can’t be avoided. They have to accept that sometimes, it’s just impossible to save everyone.

They come to a stop before a heavy wooden door that most likely leads to the stage or whatever Nuts is using to display her ‘goods’. The metallic scent of blood immediately hits them as soon as the panel is pushed from its frame, and the few girls at the back either gag or faint on the spot. Mutsuki falters as well, but he quickly manages to keep his nausea at bay. Hide swallows thickly to maintain his composure. Juuzou looks completely unaffected.

In fact, he’s so unaffected that he chooses that exact moment to rip himself free from the duct tape binding his wrists and tear away from his guard’s carelessly lose hold, bounding right through the opening in front of him. Hide takes advantage of the confusion and wriggles his hands free as well, briefly gesturing for Mutsuki to stay where he is and take care of the girls while he and Juuzou get down to business.

And without staying even a second longer to confirm if he got the message, Hide tears the tape from his mouth, and dashes to join his superior.

xXx

As it turns out, the auction is held in a sort of fancy amphitheater.

Hide would’ve appreciated the architecture and interior design and all that stuff more if he hadn’t been caught in his current situation. The stage floor is stained with blood; both fresh and stale. Facing the stage are rows upon rows of seats, every one of them occupied by ghouls in expensive clothing and masquerade masks. Behind them are three more floors of verandas, also occupied by a bunch of high class ghouls. Juuzou is nowhere to be seen, and the Nutcracker is staring at Hide from across the stage with so much rage and incredulity he could’ve started laughing right there. He can’t blame her for being mad at them. It must’ve been utterly embarrassing for her to have her ‘items’ running free and potentially trashing the place.

Before he could decide on what he should do next, a series of ohhs and ahhs erupt from the audience, and when Hide dares himself to look, he sees Juuzou weaving in and out of the crowd and merrily hopping from one seat to another by stepping on the backrests. When a few guards attempt to catch him, he disappears into the hallways and leads them to a dangerous game of chase.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice announces over the speakers amongst the excitement, his cheeriness evidently forced. Hide guesses that must be the backup emcee or something, since the Nutcracker is still glaring at him with a look that practically screams bloody murder. “We are glad to see that you enjoyed that brief entertainment we’ve provided! Unfortunately, our intermission has come to an end, and the auction shall resume! Now onto the next product!”

Hide gulps once, and steps into view. Murmurs immediately break out from the crowd when his presence is registered, and he tries to keep a straight face while his brain races for ideas.

“That scent-“

“She smells like a male..”

“Wait, isn’t that auctioneer famous for providing young girls only?”

“Must be a mistake. How careless..”

“You-“ Nuts hisses when she finally finds her voice, and Hide decides he should just focus on keeping himself alive for now. He gets the feeling she won’t go easy on him; not after humiliating her in front of her buyers like this. “You’re a-“

“I’m a guy,” Hide affirms, dramatically pulling off his wig to reveal his short blonde hair underneath. It’s probably his body odor that gave him away; cheap perfume can only provide that much cover against ghouls’ sharp sense of smell. “Oh, sorry - I didn’t know you’re actually so picky. Why don’t we sit down and have a nice, civilized talk about letting me go and-“

Hide stops short just in time to leap forward and avoid being skewered by a giant barb, letting out a rather manly yelp in the process. He figures he must’ve been crazier than he thought he was all along; attempting to challenge an A~ ranked ghoul without a weapon. He lands on the floor with a roll and immediately gets to his feet, his senses on full alert. The audience cheers around them, satisfied with being able to witness another dismantling show. Hide, on the other hand, discovers that perhaps he’d finally ran out of luck that evening.

Of all things, the Nutcracker has to have a bikaku kagune shaped like a scorpion’s tail. Hide used to love those arachnids when he was younger because he thought they were so cool with their exoskeleton and lighting fast venomous stings that could kill victims hundreds of times larger than themselves and all that, but he’s rapidly changing his mind. If Nut’s tail is as fast as an actual scorpion’s - or worse, it’s even faster - Hide isn’t sure how long he’d be able to keep up in not getting himself punctured all over long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

“The starting bid is fifty thousand yen for a limb!”

Rude, Hide thinks as he laments over the fact that he has exactly nothing he could use against the ghoul. He’s obviously worth a lot more than that - but he supposes it isn’t exactly the time for him to defend his ego. Normal weapons (such as that promising-looking steel pipe within his arm’s reach) would not even scratch the Nutcracker and that kagune is a real pain in the ass. Hide guesses his only way of actually surviving is by avoiding or somehow disabling her tail. He doesn’t have to deal much damage yet. He just has to keep her busy and direct the audience’s attention to him until Haise and the others reach them.

Nuts goes for another strike, and Hide nearly dodges a second too slow. The sharp point of the ghoul’s tail catches his dress and the fabric rips from his movement to the opposite direction. Hide’s tempted to ask for a timeout so he can strip the damn thing off, but with the way Nuts is passionately asking him to die, she probably wouldn’t comply anyway so he doesn’t bother. Still, he had to reduce his own contact area somehow or another. Hide’s eyes dart around as he keeps himself moving, looking for something that could help buy him time; preferably something he could jam Nuts’ kagune with. Or something he could use to blind her. Or perhaps even an exposed wire that he could use to stun her with. Anything.

There’s a large, empty cage behind the Nutcracker but Hide decides that wouldn’t be any good to him. Shutting himself in is a terrible idea and trying to lure the ghoul in there made no sense since she could easily cut her way out. He could always bet on the chances that she’ll put a hole on the floor at a certain angle and get her tail stuck between wooden boards, but it’ll be a process of trial and error, and the leftover holes would limit his own movements as well. Hide doesn’t exactly fancy giving himself less space to dart around.  

All the dodging and running progressively saps Hide’s energy. Hide could feel his movements slowing down and his breathing turning into pants as the minutes pass one by one. It’s surprisingly draining to stay on the defensive. He backs against a pillar, trying to catch his breath when the drapes at the side of the stage catch his eye. If he remembers his time spent helping out in his middle school drama club correctly, stage curtains are pretty heavy. If he could get to the other end, maybe he could-

Distracted, Hide almost doesn’t notice the huge barb coming straight at his chest until it’s too late. He lurches to the side, but his response had been delayed. Hide hisses when the point of Nuts’ tail cuts into his flesh just below his last rib. Fortunately for him, it’s not a deep wound and the pain isn’t overwhelming. He presses a hand over the bleeding wound. He can still move.

“Three hundred thousand for the heart!”

The Nutcracker draws her kagune back, and a plan begins formulating in Hide’s mind. Her tail is fast, but the instant it extends, her momentum would make her tail harder - if not impossible - to control. He would find his opening there. Hide keeps his eyes focused on the appendage, tensing when it does.

And as soon as the Nutcracker lashes out at him, Hide ducks his head low, and sprints forward.

xXx

Mutsuki’s pretty sure he’d been asked to stay behind while his two superiors steal the spotlight outside.

Which means his task lies in keeping the two guards busy.

Scratch that - there’s only one of them left now. The other has went out after Hide before he could stop him. Mutsuki knows he shouldn’t have been relieved over the fact that he doesn’t have to handle two ghouls twice his size each on his own, but he is. Having the girls around has already made his job hard enough. He can’t let them get hurt. He couldn’t do anything to help those before them anymore, but he’ll do everything in his power to prevent further unnecessary deaths.  

Mutsuki eyes the guard to his right, gathering his courage. He couldn’t afford to just knock the guy unconscious and risk him waking up anytime soon. He knows that if he wants to make sure he doesn’t run off to sound the alarms or use the innocent girls as leverage once he realizes who he is, he’d have to stain his hands and kill the ghoul right here and now.

But how?

Associate Special Class Suzuya had lent him a couple of his knives earlier, and they’re now strapped against his thighs. It’s one scrawny kid against a six feet tall ghoul who looks like he’s made of nothing but muscles. Mutsuki twists slightly to dig his nails into the tape around his wrists, putting a hole into the material so he could tear his hands free. A head-on assault would be suicide, he decides. He forces himself to remember his training. What had Sasaki and Hide taught him? What are his strengths? What advantages does he have?

Mutsuki makes a distressed sound and lets himself go limp, carefully folding his legs under him. The guard curses when he sees him sinking to the floor, hurrying over to break his fall either by instinct or obligation, the boy couldn’t tell. Not that it matters.

“Ugh, not you too,” the man groans, grabbing him roughly by the arm to haul him upright. He’d been resting the fainted girls against the wall nearby when Mutsuki began his act. He looks like he has had enough of handling feeble humans, and he’s totally unsuspecting an attack from the one before him. Perfect.  

Mutsuki abruptly pulls his hands apart, and in one swift motion, he unsheathes his knife, and slashes the ghoul across the eyes above his mask.

Surprised and blinded, the guard releases his hold and stumbles back, blood pouring down his face. Mutsuki has to act before he could complete his regeneration, and if there’s anything he’s scarcely good at, he’s been told that he could be fast when he tries. He kicks out, suppressing a wince as his leg tangles with the man’s and causes the latter to fall backwards to the ground. While he’s still stunned, Mutsuki leaps at him, using his whole weight to pin him flat on the floor. And without stopping to think, he lifts his blade, and drives it right through his chest and into his heart.

Mutsuki lets go when huge hands close around his throat, the thumbs pressing onto his windpipe and cutting off his air supply. How could he have so much strength left when he’s on the verge of dying? Quinque steel curbs regeneration; Mutsuki discovered that when he had his ear pierced for the tracker. Not even a ghoul can survive when his heart stops functioning. He works to pry those fingers loose, choking for breath. The man lets out a gurgled laugh as he tightens his grip, gleeful for being able to bring his attacker down with him. Not good. The edges of Mutsuki’s vision are slowly darkening. He had to do something or else-

Mutsuki reaches for his second knife with one hand and stabs downwards with it, feeling the blade sink into skin and flesh. He then yanks the knife out, and perhaps it’s due to his own desperation to stay alive - he isn’t sure, he brings it down once more. And again. And again. And he doesn’t stop until the force abruptly leaves the hands around his neck, and the ghoul falls motionless, finally dead.

Mutsuki gets off him, his weapon dropping to the floor with an dull clank. He doesn’t notice how hard he’s breathing and how badly his entire body is trembling until then. The reality of it all slowly sinks in. He’d done it. He’d taken a life with his own two hands.

It’s not murder, not exactly. He had to kill in order to protect. He didn’t kill because he wanted to, but because he had to. He’s not like them; he’s not killing for the fun of it. He didn’t have a choice.

He didn’t have a choice if he’d wanted to survive.

Mutsuki doubles over, and throws up.

xXx

The first part of the raid is unexpectedly easy.

Haise and his team cross the courtyard and towards the main entrance of the manor without having to face even one ghoul. The other investigators had cleared a path for them all the way to the inside to ensure they’d be able to get to the Juuzou and the others as soon as they can. Haise navigates the sophisticated hallways with his squad in toll, his thumb positioned over the knob on his suitcase handle so he could activate his Quinque at the shortest notice. Akira’s voice sounds from the device in his ear, barking orders and directions. Haise answers to every one of them with a simple ‘Roger’ and forges straight on, eventually finding the hidden doorway and slowly progressing deeper and deeper underground.

And underground is where it gets busy because Haise’s team is one of the first ones there. It’s strange, how everything feels like there’s a sort of familiarity to it. Haise couldn’t help wondering if he’d done something like this before in the past. If yes, then what was he doing? What were his reasons to descend belowground?

Hurry, Haise. Or else you’ll never make it.

It doesn’t help that the insistently taunting voice in his head is giving him the start of a migraine. He speaks every time Haise hesitates, every time he pauses to reconsider his situation before taking action. Haise does his best to ignore him, distracting himself by putting all his focus onto his task. The alarms must’ve been sounded. More guards are coming for them now, but it’s still not something they’re unable to handle. With the place raided by the CCG, the guards had more important people to defend than a group of lowly humans who were about to be sold as goods anyway.  

Haise makes the effort to deal the bare minimum of blows per opponent when he’s confronted. He only disables his foes and refrains from killing them because he and his team are in a rush and they can’t afford to spend the extra precious seconds fighting. They’ll have to leave the finishing touches to the other squads.

Haise orders the Quinx to stick close to the wall so they’d have to worry about one less direction to defend. He has to admit; the kids are faring quite well despite their nervousness earlier. Shirazu and Urie’s not dragging their duels and even Saiko’s doing a decent job acting as support by using her ukaku Quinque to cover her teammates. Maybe they’ll be able to do this without getting seriously hurt after all.

“Rank 1 Sasaki,” a voice buzzes in Haise’s ears, one belonging to one of the guys stationed at their command center. “You’re approaching Rank 3 Mutsuki’s location; continue going north for thirty paces or so, then switch direction and move west. He should be within sight by then.”

“Understood.” Haise turns to address his team. “We’re making a turn in the next corner.”

 They push back the last of the guards on them and sprint towards the junction ahead, the rest of their path oddly peaceful. Haise spots several figures at the other end once they enter the left corridor, and he’s shortly given his confirmation that Mutsuki is indeed among them. Haise and his team move straight on.

“Mutsuki-kun!” Haise calls as he approaches him, and he feels his heart nearly coming to a stop when the boy in question turns towards his voice.

“S-Sensei,” Mutsuki says, both his tone and smile shaky. The front of his dress, his hands, even his neck and face - they are all stained with blood. Haise’s temple throbbed.

You can’t save anyone.

“Holy shit, Tooru.” Shirazu’s the first to overcome his stupor and go to the shorter boy. “What happened, man? You’re a mess!”

“The blood isn’t mine. I’m okay,” Mutsuki tells him, and it’s only then that the others notice the unmoving body on the ground; as well as the three unconscious girls slumped against the wall. Haise also sees that his subordinate is looking several shades paler than usual, his pupils dilated and his hands fisted - probably to stop them from quaking. Things click into place, and Haise honestly doesn’t know what to say. What could he say to make things better, even by the slightest bit?

It’s your fault. If only you’d insisted on not letting him be assigned to this; you could’ve prevented this from happening.

“Do you remember where the other girls are kept in?” Haise asks, forcing his attention back to his current circumstances. When Mutsuki nods after a moment of thoughtful silence, he immediately issues his instructions. “Shirazu-kun and Saiko-chan - you guys help carry these ladies and follow Mutsuki-kun to look for the rest of them. One of you contact command center and tell them the exact location once you find the place. Be careful during the evacuation, alright? Work together with everyone else. Don’t act alone.”

“Suzuya-san and Hide-san are out there,” Mutsuki informs him, pointing towards the opening just a little further from them. Haise hums once in acknowledgement and sets off right after, Urie at his heels. He wills himself to not look over his shoulder to make sure Mutsuki’s really okay. He has to put his duty above personal concerns. The operation is top priority.

Haise steps through the doorway to enter a backstage area, and he could already tell that the place is a wreck from where he stands. One of the velvet drapes on the further side of the stage has been yanked down and it currently lay in ruined heap on the floor. The Nutcracker has her kagune out and is currently lashing at someone who’s just barely evading and standing his ground against that menacing scorpion’s tail.

Haise doesn’t think twice before he jumps right into the battle, intercepting and cutting the tip of Nuts’ kagune right off as it lunges straight towards Hide.

And Hide, in his tattered clothes and questionable fashion statement with the entire bottom part of his dress torn off, simply gapes at him for a moment before baring his teeth in his trademark grin. “About time, buddy!”

“Sorry!” Haise says, regrettably unable to offer him anything more than a glance because of the ghoul he’s occupied with. But he’s glad. Apart from a few cuts and bruises and that small gash on his side, Hide doesn’t seem to have any major wounds. With his makeup melted and his halfassed attempts to wipe away whatever remained of it, his face looks dirtier than it actually is. His breathing is heavy and a few strands of his blond hair are plastered on the edges of his face. “You need any help dealing with her?”

“Just give me a minute to catch my breath,” Hide says, momentarily retreating to collect his Quinque from Urie. The younger boy averts his gaze when he smiles and thanks him, but Hide supposes he should’ve expected that. He doesn’t even get the chance to wish him good luck before he takes off to join the ghoul extermination at the seating area.

Hide’s briefcase morphs into solid weapon resembling a long dagger when he presses the activator on its handle, its weight assuring in his hands. He charges in while Haise still has the female ghoul distracted, and switching his hold on the hilt of his Quinque into a reverse grip, Hide twists and slashes a wide arc across the Nutcracker’s torso. Yeah, it feels great to finally be able to fight back.

“Go look for Suzuya-san, Haise!” Hide shouts over his shoulder as the ghoul staggers from the impact of his attack, a stream of red leaking from her newly opened wound. “I’ll be fine on my own!”

He’s facing a fairly high rated ghoul alone while he’s battered and exhausted - it couldn’t be an easy feat, not even for him. But Haise has no choice but to do as he says. If Juuzou’s somewhere behind one of the verandas of the upper floors like he’d been notified, he’d need his Quinque more than anyone else.

Haise takes a sharp breath, and gathering his resolve, he leaves to find Juuzou. The latter’s in the highest floor, he’d been told, where the VIP ghouls are currently being cornered. Unfortunately, those filthy rich ghouls had also hired members of Aogiri as their private bodyguards, and it’s turning into quite an intense battle.

Turn back, Haise. You know he won’t be able to win his fight by himself. You know that.

“I need to get to Juuzou-kun first,” Haise unconsciously mutters under his breath, running up the stairs three at a time and stopping only to get a ghoul out of his way or avoid colliding with a fellow investigator. It’s as though he’s worried that his body would go against his brain and move on its own accord if he doesn’t voice the words out loud. “Only then I’ll go help Hide.”

He reaches his destination quickly enough, and he discovers that the topmost floor is in utter chaos. A series of verandas are lined along the hallway to his right, offering a full view of the amphitheatre below. Hooded individuals clash with Doves, neither party willing to give in without a struggle. Bodies of the fallen are scattered all over; some in expensive clothing, some in maroon robes, some wearing the dark attire of the CCG investigators. Haise doesn’t see Juuzou anywhere.

If you’re not going to protect him, give it back. Give my body back.

Haise ignores the voice and moves further into the hallway. Fortunately, he doesn’t need to go far because his path is soon blocked by a group of investigators facing off with a band of Aogiri members. Juuzou’s stuck at the very back of the group, probably banned from going into combat without a proper Quinque. He’s juggling a few of his knives - all of them bloody - when Haise hastily approaches him and passes him his briefcase.

“Ahh, thanks, Haise!” Juuzou chirps, activating his weapon in delight as soon as his fingers close around the handle. Haise takes a step back to avoid taking a giant scythe to his face.  It’s not his first time seeing Juuzou’s Jason, but the Quinque still gives him the vibes. There’s something about it, a sort of aura it emits, that unnerves Haise to no end. Perhaps it’s also partly due to how expertly Juuzou wields it; almost like a very tiny, very excited, and very intimidating grim reaper.

Juuzou holds his scythe high and squeezes his way through the barricade of investigators, loudly asking the others to make way. Once he’s through, he brandishes his Quinque a few times to warm up, and proceeds to bolt right into the enemy lines, cutting anyone and anything within his range, telling them that they’re being a nuisance and that he can’t wait to see ‘Mama’ again.

And then as though motivated by his aggression, the Doves charge forward to resume their own battles. The main objective of the plan is total annihilation; their job is to exterminate every ghoul they come across, be it a simple bodyguard or an auction attendee. Now that Haise’s primary duty has been completed, he clasps the hilt of Yukimura with both hands, makes a hundred-and-eighty degree turn, and retraces his steps.

Just as he nears the flight of stairs, a hooded Aogiri member steps in his way. Haise halts at once, instantly on guard. Judging from the length of her medium-length brown hair and the softness of the person’s features that aren’t concealed under her half-face mask, Haise guesses she’s a young girl. As she keeps staring at him, unmoving, Haise’s wariness slowly turns into a mixture of confusion and curiosity. What’s going on? He isn’t sure how long has passed until she finally bites her lip, seemingly coming to a decision, and tugs her hood lower over her head before scurrying away and disappearing over the edge of the nearest veranda.

Haise winces as pain shoots through his temples.

Give it back, Haise. Give it back before it’s too late.

Haise feels the hair behind his neck standing on their ends. He doesn’t know what compelled him, but he turns and focuses at the stage where Hide is fighting his battle alone. He only registers the sensation akin to having a red hot metal rod slowly pushed through his head and a sense of numbing panic as the scene plays out before his eyes.

The Nutcracker’s holding Hide up by his collar, her tail positioned so that in one strike, she’d be raking a gaping hole into the blond’s upper body. Something - no, everything is wrong. Hide’s feet dangle in the air, and he doesn’t seem to be moving at all. Every other investigator within his proximity is too occupied with their own fights to aid him. Even from such a distance away, Haise could see the triumphant smirk on the Nutcracker’s face.

Hide is going to die.

The voice is getting louder and louder, realer and realer; no longer a muffled murmur from the back of his mind but progressively becoming a wild, frenzied shriek.

Haise Haise Haise give it back give it back give it back GIVE IT BACK

The excruciating pain causes Haise to drop Yukimura and clutch his head. He could almost feel him forcefully clawing his way into his consciousness, desperate to take over. Spots dance in his vision, and he couldn’t seem to inhale. The more he tries to resist, to block him out, the more it feels like his skull is ripping apart. But he can’t let him out. He can’t lose control now, can’t risk hurting so many-

GIVE IT BACK HAISE GIVE IT BACK GIVE IT BACK GIVE IT BACK GIVE IT BACK GIVE IT BACK GIVE IT BACK GIVE IT BACK

Haise shuts his eyes, and screams. 

Chapter Text

The last of the victims had just been rescued and whisked off to safety when Saiko notices the change in atmosphere.

Her own earpiece had been silent, but Saiko’s hearing is sharp enough for her to pick up bits and pieces of the orders issued to the higher ranked investigators around them. The words aren’t clear, but she gets that it’s something about a ghoul running out of control, and that every investigator ranked First Class and above are to head to the auction hall immediately to act as standby in case the situation makes a turn for the worst.

“Something’s going on,” Shirazu mutters, watching their superiors return inside, a droplet of sweat trickling down the side of his face. He shifts his weight nervously, clearly unsettled by the sudden increase in graveness in the air. “What-“

“A ghoul’s going berserk in there,” Saiko says, mildly surprised that he hadn’t heard what she heard. Then again, she figures he’s probably drained from all the running around he did. He’d gone all over the place to make sure they didn’t leave out any groups of captured ladies, after all. He’d also willingly carried two unconscious girls on his back when they first headed out to look for the rest of them after finding Mutsuki because he knows Saiko isn’t tall and strong enough to support the burden.

So Saiko had, in return, done her best defending him while he had his hands full. All those shooting games she’d played surprisingly came in handy.

“Don’t tell me..” Mutsuki trails off, his gaze focused towards the way they’d emerged from when they were bringing the girls to safety. Saiko notices that something had changed about the shorter boy, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Is it the air around him? The queer look in his eyes? She hasn’t communicated with others enough to make speculations based on her observations towards body language and behavior alone. But right now, she could tell without a doubt that the expression he’s wearing is one of utmost concern.

“No,” Shirazu whispers in response to Mutsuki’s musing, eyes widening from realization. Saiko still fails to understand what’s going on. What’s with them and their sudden ability to use telepathy? Saiko feels left out for once, possibly because their anxiety is starting to affect her as well. She had a bad feeling about it all.

“What’s wrong?” Saiko dares herself to ask. Her dread is further increased when Shirazu and Mutsuki faces her, a sort of identical determination burning in their eyes.

“Stay here, Saiko,” Shirazu tells her, his tone making it obvious that he won’t be listening to any protests. “Tooru and I are going back inside.”

“What-“ Saiko begins to question once more, but stops short when Mutsuki speaks up.

“Sensei might be in danger,” he says, and Saiko stiffens. “We’re going to help him.”

“Wait.” Saiko grabs onto Shirazu’s wrist before he could hurry off. What do they mean he’s in danger? “I don’t understand.”

There’s a pause, then the taller boy shifts to remove her hand. “The one going wild,” he starts, unable to look her in the eye. “Is possibly Sassan.”

Even she had heard the rumors and it’s obvious from Sasaki’s eating habits, but Saiko had never considered him a ghoul. Not once. A ghoul could never be so kind, so caring. A ghoul would never offer to cook dinner for his subordinates whenever he can despite being tired after a long day’s work. A ghoul would never spoil her and let her call him ‘Maman’ and treat her as though she really is his own daughter.

Haise had never been a ghoul to Saiko, much less a highly dangerous one who’s going crazy and  requires a bunch of higher ranked Doves to take down. But her teammates aren’t lying, she could tell. Even though she hadn’t been there the first time, she knows something similar had happened before - she’d heard the whispers past her bedroom walls; it isn’t that difficult. Mutsuki and Shirazu had seen it, and they’re aware of the direness of the situation; which is why they’re so anxious to leave and reach him.

“What’s going to happen to him?” Saiko asks despite her own fears towards the answer she already knows. “What’s going to happen to Maman?”

“If we can’t stop him,” Shirazu says slowly, softly. “He’ll be exterminated just like any other ghoul.”

Saiko’s heart skips a beat. No, she doesn’t want that. She doesn’t want to lose her mentor, her mother. There must be something even she can do, something to bring him back to his senses. She can’t let them kill him. Of all people, she can’t let them take away Sasaki from her.

“I’m going with you guys,” Saiko decides rather abruptly, meeting and holding the gazes of her teammates. “I  can’t just stand back and do nothing when Maman might get killed.”

“It’s going to be dangerous,” Mutsuki warns, cutting off Shirazu’s instant objection. “Even we don’t know what we’ll do in there, and we’ll only be in the way if we’re not careful.”

“I’m going,” Saiko says obstinately, balling her fists. The boys, seeing her honest resolve, finds no will to argue further. There’s no time to do so, anyway. They had to get going before it’s too late.

“Don’t fall behind,” Shirazu orders before turning on his heels once more. “We’re running there.”

And ignoring demands from a few of their superiors who were still present in the area, the three Quinx bolt back into the hallways that lead underground.

xXx

Urie had just cut down another masked ghoul in an expensive-looking suit when he heard the scream.

He isn’t usually terrified so easily, but there’s something about the cry that made his heart race and his teeth clench with fear. He stands rooted to his spot, momentarily frozen as the scream rises and rises in pitch until it falls into an abrupt, eerie silence. What on earth-

A loud boom suddenly sounds behind him, causing his entire body to immediately tense up in caution. Since every ghoul within his area had been taken care of, the part of Urie’s mind which had recovered from the fright quicker than the others deems it safe for him to turn around and see. Urie wills himself to twist and look behind him, wary towards the even smallest sign of danger.

It takes him almost a full minute to understand the flow of events that had just taken place. He turns just in time to see a big, writhing shape sail through the air towards the center stage where the battle with the Nutcracker is still going on. Urie quickly puts two and two together and realizes that the figure had launched himself from the now falling apart veranda in the far corner of the highest floor. The strength in his legs must be monstrous; to be able to propel himself across such a distance in a single leap and exert enough backward force to crush concrete like it’s nothing.

It takes almost another minute to dawn him that the thing he’d seen in the air is none other than Rank 1 Sasaki.

The half-ghoul has once again lost control.

Urie knows that even if he erased hundreds of small fry ghouls who only knew how to buy their way of out things (as if he would even touch their filthy money) his likelihood of getting a promotion is slim. He’s aware that his efforts would not be properly recognized unless he slays some higher rated ghouls. He could’ve targeted the Nutcracker, but with Hide already fighting her, the acknowledgement would be divided between them, and that isn’t enough.

But if he takes down the SS rated Haise, he might just have a chance. No - he’s almost certain that he’ll be promoted at least two ranks if he manages to defeat him.

Urie doesn’t spend more precious time thinking. If he uses his Quinque alone, he wouldn’t last a second in a fight with a crazed ghoul of that level. He’d have to use his kagune as well. He switches his hold on his Tsunagi to his left hand and concentrates on the spot below his shoulder blade where his kakuhou is located. It’s alright. He won’t be consumed like Sasaki has. He’d secretly woken up in the middle of the night during the past week or so to train by himself. Despite all that’s said and done, Urie’s kagune didn’t feel any different; only slightly heavier. His sense of smell and taste hasn’t changed much. He can handle this.

His RC cells burst out of his skin and harden into a giant blade two times the length of his arm. Urie makes an experimental swing with his right arm. Good - nothing feels out of place. He turns his attention towards the direction of the stage, and unbelievably, the sight that greets him makes him hesitate to go through with his plans.

The violent Sasaki he’d seen during the faceoff with Serpent is nothing compared to this rampaging monster. The half-ghoul had randomly attacked everyone within his vicinity; be it ghoul or human - but mostly human because a majority of the ghouls present had already been eradicated - leaving a bunch of injured investigators in his wake. His kagune lashes everywhere in a frenzy, breaking everything they come into contact with. For a moment there, Urie isn’t sure he’d want to cross Sasaki’s path and  get himself killed. There’s no way he could hold his ground against him, not like this.

But the promotion, a voice in his mind persists. If he’s lucky enough to subjugate him, he’ll have the promotion he’d always wanted, yearned. He can’t chicken out now when the opportunity is right there before his eyes. He had to overcome his fears. For his father. There’s no success without risks.

“Rank 2 Urie, this is an order! Fall back!”

Urie rips the device from his ear, and taking a sharp breath, he wills his legs to take him towards the stage.

xXx

Hide knew he was tired, but he didn’t know it’s enough to put his life in danger.

Everything happened in a flash. One minute he’s fine; his blows are getting through and he’s doing a great job avoiding and countering the Nutcracker’s attacks while trying to remember she still had a tail ready to impale him anytime she pleases. The next minute he’s got her cornered and he’s just lunging in for the finishing strike - and perhaps his movements has once again slowed down, he isn’t sure - when the ghoul’s kagune comes between him and its owner, and with one deft flick, Hide’s sent flying backwards with so much force that he hits a wall with a sickening crack.

The impact was enough to knock the oxygen out of his lungs. Hide slumps to the floor, completely dazed for one dangerous moment. As he works to regain the ability to breathe while blinking the spots out of his vision, he faintly registers Nuts towering over him before he’s picked up by the collar and held in the air as though he weighs nothing more than a ragdoll.

Hide orders his body to move, but his limbs fail to respond. He’s aware of the ghoul’s kagune hovering behind him, ready to pierce through him with its point any second now. The Nutcracker smirks up at him, satisfied to have finally gotten him in her hands. Hide struggles to find the strength to break away. She’d kill him for sure (and she might even snatch his nuts for a quick snack before attempting to run off, oh dear) and Hide doesn’t want that. It’s not his time to die yet. There’s still so many things he has to do. His Quinque is gone, but he has to stop her, fight back; somehow.

Somehow.

Hide feels a tingle in his spine a split-second before he hears it; a scream so loud and unsettling that the entire hall seems muted while it lasts. There’s no mistake. He knows who that voice belongs to, and he has a terrible feeling about this-

The grip on Hide’s collar is released, and its only when the blond has stumbled onto the ground that he realizes that in actuality, Nuts’ hands had been completely severed from the wrists by the scaly, familiar dark red tentacles that are already moving for a second assault. Finally regaining control of his body, Hide rips the hands from his shirt without thinking twice and flings them aside. He then looks up, and merely watches in stunned bewilderment as the red tentacles proceed to literally tear the Nutcracker apart. The ease in which the feat is executed makes him feel very inferior in ability, but that’s not the point.

Hide turns to see Haise standing not far off; his eyes wide and mismatched, his mouth twisted into a feral, sadistic sneer. No, that’s not.. Haise. Haise wouldn’t look like that, wouldn’t take so much pleasure in utterly annihilating an enemy who’s already dead. The ‘Haise’ aspect of him is much too soft, too tenderhearted to enjoy being so brutal towards another living being.

“Kaneki.”

The name escapes from Hide’s mouth in a soundless puff of air. That must be him - or to the very least, the part of him which he had so desperately tried to hold back the last time they met in the sewers those few years back. The part of him that’s the product of all the suffering he’d been forced to endure during his absence from Hide’s life. The part of him which slowly consumed him from the inside and threatened to turn him into the monster he feared.

Hide slowly stands up, breaking into hollow coughs when he inhales too deeply and feels a burning ache flare in his chest. He must’ve cracked a rib or something from Nuts’ last blow. No matter. He had more important things to deal with right now.

“Haise!” he calls out, praying and praying that his words will reach him. He can’t keep going on like this. If he stays in this state, he might just cross the point of no return and - Hide doesn’t want to think about it. “Haise, that’s enough! Calm down!”

Haise’s gaze shift towards him, and there’s a brief flicker of recognition in his eyes when he sees him. Hide clings on to the sliver of hope that maybe he’d been right, maybe he really is the key to bringing Haise back to his senses when he goes berserk. Maybe the role he’d willingly signed up for is something within his own capabilities after all.

Maybe, just maybe, he hadn’t been overly prideful when he claimed that this is something probably only he can do.

“Hide,” is all Haise manages to say before bending over in pain, his hands shooting up to grip the sides of his head. Hide winces from the way he trashes about and moans over how much it hurts, hurts, hurts; his own heart crumbling into pieces so tiny he’s sure he’ll never be able to put them together again. But it’s not the time for him to care about his own emotions. He has to do something to bring him - to bring Haise back.

Haise’s kagune is going absolutely haywire; lashing out everywhere and at everything. Hide takes a careful step towards him, trying to shut out his cries of pain because there’s probably only so much he can bear before he starts breaking himself. A stray appendage misses his foot by barely an inch, obliterating the wooden floor in front of it; and Hide has never loathed himself more for flinching. He’s not afraid of Haise, is he? He can’t be. He’s his friend! Haise will never harm him.

Kaneki will never harm him.

“Haise,” Hide starts as he inches closer. “Listen to me, buddy. Listen to my voice. You’ll be okay.”

“I.. have to fight,” Haise chokes out. “ I have to grow stronger I can’t let them die I can’t let them die-“

“You can stop now, Haise,” Hide soothes, summoning every last bit of his willpower to stop the quaver from making an appearance. He takes one step closer. “You can stop fighting now. It’s alright.”

“Hi..de.” Haise curls up even more in response to his voice. “Hide Hide Hide I have to protect him I have to protect him I can’t let him know I can’t endanger him I can’t I can’t-“

“I’m right here, buddy,” Hide promises, digging his nails into his palm as he takes another step forward. He’s vaguely aware of how the area within a ten meter radius around them with Haise as the center has been vacated. The snipers from the backup teams are also getting into position on the upper floors, their rifles no doubt loaded with tranquilizers and aimed towards his best friend. Please don’t shoot, Hide begs silently. Don’t hurt him more than he’s already hurting himself. “I’m right here. I’m fine.”

The writhing of Haise’s kagune gradually slows down as Hide keeps talking, finally responding to the latter’s reassuring tone. Haise’s eyes dart around, searching, searching. Hide moves even closer, wanting so badly to simply jump at him and pull him into a tight embrace just like he always did during those peaceful, bygone days. But he knows he can’t.

“It still hurts, doesn’t it?” Hide continues, his approach a little bolder now that Haise isn’t being as aggressive as he’d initially been. “Try taking a deep breath, Haise. It’ll be over soon. Just bear with it a little while longer.”

Haise’s gaze settles on him at last, and Hide tries for a encouraging smile. He isn’t sure if he’d managed to pull it off well, though. The look of utter anguish in those mismatched eyes is enough to unravel anyone with a heart. The pain must be agonizing. Hide bites his lip to keep his tears from welling up and falling. Now’s not the time. He has to be strong, for his best friend’s sake.

Hide opens his mouth to speak, but before he could form any words, he spots a lone figure approaching them from his peripheral. When he averts his focus to the person for a clearer view, he realizes that it’s Urie, and that the Quinx has his kagune activated and his Quinque armed. Hide’s breath catches in his throat. No. Don’t come any closer, he tries to send the message across with his eyes, but the younger boy’s attention is directed solely on his target. Hide had somehow created a sort of comfort zone in which only he and Haise could be within. If Urie gets any nearer, Haise might mistaken him for a threat and snap and-

Urie surges in, and Haise immediately registers his presence, instantly moving to personally deal with this intruder who dared enter their space. Hide remembers shouting something before leaping to intersect them, only thinking about preventing the worst from happening and nothing else.

He then hears a short, snapping sound, and everything goes dark.

xXx

..se

Someone’s calling him.

..Haise.

 That’s.. not his name. His name is.. his name is..

“Haise. “

His fingers twitch, and the first thing he notices is the warmth around his right hand. Next is a sort of thick moisture, as well as a certain stickiness.

And a steady, beating pulse.

Haise’s vision comes into focus; almost like a video whereby the person filming had just removed the cover from their camera lens upon realizing they haven’t done so before they started recording. His brain slowly begins processing the details of his situation. He’s kneeling on the floor. There’s a tinge of sweetness in the air. A spot on his leg aches dully, and his eyelids feel unusually heavy. Right in front of him is a mop of blond hair that’s just starting to brown at the roots. Hide. His head is bowed so Haise couldn’t see his face. Haise lets his sight travel a bit lower, a nagging thought compelling him to figure out the source of the peculiar sensation he’d felt earlier.

He stops breathing when realization crashes over him like a wave, the rush of adrenaline accompanying it enough to overpower his initial sluggishness.

Haise has his hand buried deep into Hide’s midsection.

He’d done it -  he’d done the one thing he’s so afraid of doing when he loses control. He’s hurt someone important to him, possibly even to a fatal degree because there’s no way a human like Hide could survive from the blood loss and the damage to so many of his vital organs. Haise wants to yell, to wail, to pummel himself to death because why did this have to happen? Why did he let it happen? Why? Why? Why?

Haise doesn’t notice he’s crying until he feels someone brushing their finger across the corner of his eye, spreading the wetness across his skin. He looks up at once, and feels his throat constricting even more when amber orbs stare back at him, still very much alive.

“Haise,” he hears Hide say ever so softly, resting his hand on his shoulder. How could he sound like that? How could he sound so calm and forgiving despite what he’d done? “It’s alright. You don’t have to cry.”

“Hide.” Haise’s voice cracks. “Hide, I’m so sorry-“

“Shhh, it’s alright,” Hide tells him, the corners of his lips lifted in a small, impossibly gentle smile. He winces when he moves to clumsily tap his companion’s forearm. “Pull this out, buddy.”

“I-I can’t,” Haise says, fear rapidly rising in his chest. He’ll bleed to death if he pulls it out now. He can’t lose him; he just can’t. “You’ll die!”

“Please.” Hide coughs, blood welling up in his mouth. He turns his head slightly to the side and spits, leaving a bright red mark on the floor. “You have to trust me, Haise. I can’t heal like this.”

Haise squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head stubbornly. “I don’t want you to die, Hide.”

“Haise,” Hide says again, and there’s something in his tone of voice this time that compels Haise to look at him once more. When he speaks, he sounds almost like he’s pleading. “Please trust me.”

Haise does trust him. Oh, he does and perhaps that’s exactly the reason why he ends up doing as the blond says despite it being against his own better judgment. Haise clenches his teeth, and with so much reluctance that it’s painful, he retracts his hand in one smooth and swift motion. Hide’s expression briefly contorts in pain, but he takes a quick breath, and forcefully wills his smile to return.

“See?” he says rather unconvincingly, weakly spreading his arms. “I’m still fine!”

But Haise isn’t listening anymore. He physically shrinks, and for once, he feels the owner of the voice in his head mirror his movements. His shoulders hunch as far forward as they can go and his hands move to tangle his fingers roughly into his hair, staining the white of the strands with red. His voice quivers awfully as he mutters the words over and over; “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry-“

“It’s okay, Haise.” Hide reaches up, hesitating briefly before grasping both of Haise’s trembling hands in his own, nearly exhaling a sigh of relief when the other boy doesn’t flinch away. “It’s okay.”

“But I hurt you,” Haise murmurs, shriveling even more. He’s scared. He’s so scared. What if he leaves him? What if he hates him? “I hurt you, Hide. I won’t forgive myself if you-“

“Didn’t I say it already?” Hide cuts him off with a breathless laugh. Tenderly, he pries Haise’s trembling fingers from his hair and guides his hands to his midriff, placing them over the spot where he’d just been impaled. “I won’t die, Haise.”

Haise tenses up at once, expecting to be greeted by a mess of innards and broken tissue and utter gore. It must be horrible. And it’s his fault that he’s in such a condition. It’s his fault, it’s his fault. He’s so focused on blaming himself that it takes him a while before he realizes that something isn’t quite right.

What meets his touch is a smooth, undamaged expanse of skin.

Hide’s wound has closed up.

Haise stares hard at the blond’s face, looking for the answers that are simply not there. Hide returns his gaze, still wearing that slight smile and not saying a word.

“Hide, you’re..”

Chapter Text

The statistics of the Auction Wipeout Plan are as follow: the elimination rate is 95.6% with the remaining surviving percentage consisting of the few ghouls who were aware of the existence of a secret passage CCG’s investigators did not notice until the end of the operation, as well as the Aogiri members acting as bodyguards who either had their clients killed or who had decided to abandon their clients to save themselves in the last minute. Associate Special Class Suzuya holds the credit for finally slaying the notorious Big Madam. Rank 1 Nagachika and Rank 1 Sasaki share the acknowledgement of taking down the Nutcracker. The accomplishments go on and on.

Overall, the raid had been quite a success.

However, the casualties CCG’s forces suffered is enough to dampen their triumph. A total of a hundred and fifty investigators had taken part in the fieldwork of the operation. More than half of them returned with heavy - some even life-threatening - injuries. A little more than a quarter were dead. There had been three roomfuls of victims captured to be sold for the auction. Out of about ninety of them, the CCG had been unable to rescue forty.

The cost of victory had been heavy.

Hide sighs, tapping his finger impatiently against the soft material of the pillow he’s hugging. He glowers at the pouch of liquid hung up on a stand by his bedside as if he could make it drip faster using sheer willpower. Just about two more hours, the doctor had told him a little earlier when he complained about how he’d rather be killed by a ghoul than to die from the boredom of lying around on a hospital bed with nothing else to do (thank goodness he didn’t share a ward with anyone; he figured he’d make them wish they were dead too with his constant restlessness). Two more hours and you can go home.

Hide doesn’t even want to spend another two minutes in the place, let alone two motherflipping hours. He’s not even injured - everything has healed and he’s about as good as new except for the unusual waves of hunger he’d been experiencing on and off for the past ten hours. But hey - he’s a busy guy! He has things to do and places to be at! This isn’t the time for him to laze around and revert to the bum he used to be during his late elementary school years!

Plus, he really hates the smell of disinfectants.

The Quinx walks in on him just when he’s attempting to suffocate himself with his pillow. Hide keeps his face buried for a moment longer before looking up upon hearing their footsteps, eyebrows raised. Shirazu, Mutsuki and Saiko approach him without a word, trying hard to seem casual despite the hints of worry on their faces. After what they’d seen, Hide couldn’t exactly blame them for feeling edgy.

The three Quinx had returned to the auction hall just in time to watch Hide shove Urie aside only to be stabbed in the gut by Haise right after. Hide couldn’t decide which could’ve been more overwhelming for them; the fact that their mentor had just attacked their teammate the moment he noticed him like it’s a natural response, or the way the gaping hole on Hide’s belly had healed right before their eyes. Probably both. Their heads must be filled to the brim with questions.

“Mornin’!” Hide greets them with his habitual grin. He tucks his pillow under his chin and regards them as they halfheartedly mutter their own good mornings, their gazes all over the place. Hide knows he shouldn’t beat around the bush, but sensing their unease, he’s inclined to reduce the tension in the air before they start having a proper conversation. “Why are you guys up so early on a break day? You should rest up more after such a long night.”

“It’s ten in the morning, Hide-san,” Shirazu tells him after a short pause, and Hide could only chuckle sheepishly, scratching his cheek. Oops. In his defense, ten in the morning is still early in his personal standards. “How are you feeling?”

“So bored I’m thinking of fading into the walls in a little while,” Hide says, lifting his arms above his head to stretch. “But physically, I’m good.”

“It doesn’t hurt anywhere..?” Mutsuki asks carefully, eyeing his midsection. He then lets his attention wander to the tube connected to the bend of the blond’s arm, following its length up to its other end that’s attached to the packet of pinkish liquid. Hide could almost feel the inquiries threatening to burst out any moment now.

“Not at all,” he replies airily, moving to cross his legs the other way round. “Speaking of which, where’s Haise?”

It’s his turn to feel perturbed when the kids blanch simultaneously, all three of them training their focus on the floor. What happened to him? Is Haise in trouble with the CCG for losing control? For injuring the other investigators? For almost killing him by accident?

“He’s at home right now,” Mutsuki finally enlightens him, still not meeting his eyes. He runs his hand repeatedly across his arm as though warding off the nonexistent cold. “But he’s feeling really down and.. he won’t come out of his room again.”

Hearing that he’s safe, Hide tentatively relaxes; the entire situation giving him the strangest sense of déjà vu. Now that he thinks of it, Kaneki has had this habit of locking himself up whenever he’s upset ever since his mother passed away, hadn’t he? He didn’t have much of a choice then; staying with his aunt was practically a living hell for him. Even Hide would’ve done the same if he had to put up with such an abusive bitch who’d lash out at him and generally try to make his life miserable whenever she saw him. He’d heard about the way she’d treated his best friend; the names she calls him, the threats she spouts at the littlest things, the way she seems to masterfully turn the words he adored so much into venom.

And it was during those early years that Hide had felt so.. powerless for the first time. His efforts to keep Kaneki company and make him happy during the hours they’re together weren’t enough. Couldn’t he make her stop? Couldn’t he protect Kaneki properly? Couldn’t he shield him from all the hate and rejection?

Hide had, ever since finding out about his best friend’s circumstances after the death of his one remaining family, always secretly yearned to grow up quicker. He’d wanted to be an adult as soon as he can so he could actually do something to help. They could run away and move into an apartment together and be responsible for themselves. Kaneki would finally have a breather and live without his devil-incarnate aunt criticizing and condemning his every action, decision and achievement.

They’d ended up renting separate apartments after graduating from high school with Hide somehow managing to get into Kamii with Kaneki after working his butt off - but that’s okay, Hide had thought the first time. As long as he doesn’t need to keep enduring his aunt’s torment, it’s fine.

And it had been. Until his date with Rize and everything went spiraling downhill once more.

Kaneki had then promptly shut him out; both physically and emotionally. He’d locked himself in his apartment for days upon discovering the truth about his condition. He’d outright refused to even talk to Hide for fear of putting him in danger. And then shortly after the incident where Hide got his butt kicked by their senior, Kaneki had disappeared for months.

And when Hide finally found him again, he’s almost no longer the Kaneki Ken he knows.

Over the years, isolating himself has become some sort of a defensive mechanism for Kaneki. He sought solace in being alone and found comfort in the absence of people. Hide knows that first hand. And he’d let him be the first time and regretted it with all his life. He isn’t going to repeat the same mistake. Never again.

Hide blinks out of his reverie when Saiko leans over and grabs both his hands, staring at him imploringly.

“Please make Maman feel better when you get home,” she says, and Hide feels himself break into a smile, despite everything. It’s incredibly reassuring to know that Haise has companions who care so much about him even now. It’s great to know that he’s accepted for who he is among the people he now calls family.

“Of course,” Hide promises, shifting his hold to give the girl’s fingers a soft squeeze. He then regards the rest of his teammates. “And I guess you’d like to know the truth about what’s going with all these, huh?”

He gestures to his own torso and the IV attached to his arm. Very reluctantly, the Quinx nod in assent. Hide cranes his neck towards the doorway of his ward.

“Is Kuki here?”

It’s a wild guess, but Shirazu only looks slightly taken aback. “He’s outside,” he says, sounding utterly unamused by the boy in question’s behavior. “The bastard refuses to come in and apologize no matter what we say.”

“Hmm,” Hide hums thoughtfully, leaning back into his initial position. “I was actually planning to tell you guys when we get back from the operation, but I guess I’ll have to talk to Haise separately, seeing how it is.” He turns to address Shirazu, the humor in his eyes gone. “Do me a favor and call him in for me would you, Ginshi?”

“But Hide-san-“

“He’ll come,” Hide says rather confidently. Urie might be stubborn in many ways, but Hide knows he isn’t a guy without a shred of emotion. He has to feel at least something towards the events of the night before. “I don’t need his apology. He has the right to know, too.”

Shirazu looks ready to argue further, but he decides against it in the end and does as Hide had requested. When he returns with Urie in toll a few moments later, Hide beams.  

“Okay, kids - sit down and make yourselves comfortable,” he says, gesturing towards the unoccupied spaces in his ward. “Dad’s going to tell you a story.”

xXx

It’s almost mid noon when Hide finally returns home with the Quinx.

They’d went for lunch together after he got discharged because Hide thought they might as well do so since they’re all already outside. The kids must be hungry after all that serious talk. Hide sure was. Also, he figured he should give Haise a little more time and silence before he attempts to drag him out of his dumps. Hide isn’t planning on giving up until he manages to convince the other boy that nothing’s his fault, after all.

Lunch - awkward as it’d been after his explanation - was also an pretext for him to summon the last of his courage before he potentially wrecks his own feels later, but of course he isn’t telling anyone that.

The first thing Hide does as soon as he enters the chateau is head straight to his room to fetch a fresh set of clothes and proceed to take a quick shower. He’d been given a chance to rinse himself off and some clothes to change into when he’s still in the hospital, but it doesn’t alter the fact that he hasn’t had a proper bath since the previous morning. Call him oversensitive or whatever - but he figures even he wouldn’t be able to take himself seriously in a one to one conversation when he’s stinking of sweat and sticky and itching all over.

Honestly, Hide wants to laugh at all his pathetic excuses. Why can’t he just admit that he’s extremely unprepared already, geez. Somehow, telling Haise the truth about his own state feels different from telling the Quinx. Hide couldn’t exactly explain it. Is he afraid of being rejected? Of being pitied? Of the risk of triggering Haise’s memories?

Or is he afraid that talking to Haise would bring back those emotions he’d so carefully kept buried deep within him?

In roughly thirty minutes, Hide’s standing before the closed door of Haise’s room, his hand rested on the metal handle. He takes in a deep breath before letting it out in a slow, long exhale. He has the spare set of room keys in his pocket, but he figures he wouldn’t be using them. Rather, he doesn’t want to use them. The whole point is for him to be let in willingly and not to force his way in and probably ruin what’s left of their current friendship.

Though frankly, the latter suits Hide’s style more and he would’ve done so too if it’s the old Kaneki he’s dealing with. Over the years, he’d learnt that it’s impossible to see to his best friend without the slightest bit of  forcefulness. If only Hide had put that in mind when he discovered his secret. If only he’d quickly confronted him and told him that he knows and that’s it’s okay, he’s not a monster - never will be a monster in his eyes. That even if he thinks he doesn’t belong in any world he belongs in his and hell - he is his world can’t he see that?

But Hide had opted to keep quiet about it all, thinking that perhaps he should wait, he should give him some time and space to settle down first before he makes his move.

And he’d waited too long.

Hide lifts his hand, and knocks just loud enough to be heard. “Haise?”

Of course, he’s greeted with silence. Hide gives the doorknob a twist, blinking in slight astonishment when he discovers that it’s unlocked. Did Haise do it on purpose or did he just not bother? Hide pushes the door open by an inch, peeking in through the narrow gap. The lights aren’t switched on and the curtains are drawn, but the strong afternoon sun still provides enough illumination for Hide to see just fine.

“I’m coming in, okay?” Hide says, slipping into the room and closing the door softly behind him. He stops in place for a moment, bracing himself for a pillow to his face and some pleas to be left alone. He counts to twenty and nothing happens. Hide unfreezes and slowly makes his way towards Haise’s curled up figure on the bed, the corners of his lips lifted into a weary but fond smile.

“At least use your blanket if you’re cold,” he mutters, moving to unfold and drape the sheet over his companion. The temperature isn’t down to freezing yet, but it’s still a little chilly and with Haise practically hugging his knees while lying on his side, Hide could tell he needed the blanket. Haise’s eyes are closed, but Hide has known him long enough to know that he’s faking it. If he thinks Hide would leave if he ignores him long enough, he’s in for a hard time.

Hide picks a spot by the foot of the bed and settles down there, leaning back against the edge of the mattress. He lets himself slip into a lapse of silence as his gaze wanders around the well-kept - albeit slightly bare - room. When he entered earlier, he’d noticed the novel he bought for Haise the other day placed atop the latter’s desk, its plastic wrapping still intact. The past few weeks had been ridiculously busy, huh? Poor guy couldn’t even find the time to sit back and relax and enjoy the latest novel from his favorite author. It must’ve been frustrating as hell; to be unable to indulge in yet another dark, fictional world when the entrance to it is right there before him.

You know what, maybe he’s asleep after all.

..Or maybe not. Hide strains his ears. Haise’s breathing is a bit off; it’s not the deep, rhythmic kind that usually signifies slumber. It’s shallow and perhaps even a bit irregular? Judging from Hide’s own experience, he probably got too conscious of his own breathing at one point and he’s currently inhaling and exhaling on purpose instead of leaving everything to his body mechanism. Which, also means he’s probably awake and anxious for Hide to go away.

“Hey, Haise?” Hide speaks up only after around a minute or two of wordlessness. He stares at his own toes, absently wiggling the digits as he talks. “Remember the other day when you said you’d tell me stuff about yourself once the operation is over and I promised that I’d do the same?”

He once again fails to receive any response, but he forges on anyway.

“Look, I know my timing might be a little off right now and all that, but hear me out, yeah? I’ve already explained to the kids about my condition when I was still in the hospital, and I guess it’s time for me to tell you as well.” Hide moistens his dry lips. “For starters, I’m not a ghoul, a half-ghoul, nor a Quinx. I’m just another experiment.”

Haise stirs at his final word; he’s listening.

“I volunteered to be one of CCG’s test subject roughly two years ago after a certain incident,” Hide continues, repeating the tale he’d told the Quinx earlier the best he can. “Some of the guys at the research department were looking into ghouls’ regeneration factor that time, and they had a breakthrough at one point after discovering that it, in fact, has something to do with their genes. The reason why ghouls are able to heal so many times faster than a human is basically because of their genetic makeup and their higher RC cell count. I’m not that sure about you and the Quinx who have kakuhou implanted into your bodies, but I guess the organ emits some sort of radiation or chemical that somehow alters your DNA configuration?” Hide shrugs even though he knows Haise’s not looking at him. “Anyway, the researchers wanted to test out their theory, and there’s where I came in. I had the two things they needed; my consent and a healthy body with an RC cell count that’s apparently quite high for a human.

“It’s only after they’d tampered with my genes that the researchers later found out that a human’s RC level, no matter how high it is, isn’t enough to close up bigger wounds at a rapid pace like a ghoul. They then wanted to see if there’s a way to increase it without the consumption of human meat.” Hide turns his palms up, studying the lines that criss cross the surface. “I’ve got to admit though; they did a great job taking only about a week to figure it out. A ghoul’s kakuhou apparently produces some sort of hormone that stimulates the increased production of RC cells in their bodies so that it’s kept at a relatively high amount even if they don’t eat any human flesh - the Quinx are kind of like the living proof of that theory. CCG’s researchers managed to extract and duplicate that hormone, reproducing them in the form of pills which I usually have to take at regular intervals just in case.”

He pauses to let out a hollow, halfhearted laugh. “As you can see after yesterday’s excitement, they work pretty well. However, even humans need at least a certain amount of RC cells to live; and even with my temporarily boosted cell count, major regeneration drains my reserve, and I’d have to replenish my RC cells before my body decides to literally eat itself up. I couldn’t use the pills again because they need a while before they take effect - which is why I was chucked into the hospital as soon as everything was over last night. I had to be given a direct transfusion of diluted liquid RC to balance out my RC levels again.” Hide frowns. “As for why they kept me there until three hours ago, I have absolutely no idea.”

Hide stops to avert his gaze towards Haise’s figure, noting how different that broad, solid back is compared to the one belonging to the Kaneki he knew before everything went wrong. He wonders if Haise had opened his eyes by now, staring into space as he processes his words.

“If you’re still blaming yourself for what you did yesterday, don’t,” Hide tells him, a significant change in his tone of voice as well as the topic of conversation. “It’s not your fault.”

“..I could’ve killed you, Hide,” Haise says, so quietly and unexpectedly that Hide almost doesn’t hear him. “No matter how you see it-“

“Then let me ask you this,” Hide interjects calmly. “If I hadn’t gotten in your way, what would’ve happened?”

A short pause. “I would’ve hurt Urie-kun instead.”

“Exactly,” Hide agrees. “And I would’ve blamed myself for not stopping you when I had the chance.”

Haise sits up in instant protest, his blanket falling from his shoulders to his lap. “But-“

“My point is,” Hide says slowly as he twists to face him properly. “This cycle of faulting ourselves would only go on and on unless we accept that there are things beyond our control. Some things just happen, Haise. You need to understand that.”

Haise looks ready to contradict that, but he purses his lips at the last second, and finally decides not to. Hide’s secretly glad he doesn’t need to elaborate his point. Or else it’d be obvious that even he hasn’t really acknowledged the truth in his own statement.

“Why did you do it?” Haise speaks after half a minute of thoughtful quietness, his question too vague for Hide to guess what he’s referring to.

“Hmm? Do what?” Hide tilts his head and inquires. Haise gives him a strange look, as if it should be obvious.

“Why did you willingly let yourself be experimented on?” he asks, eyebrows knitted in genuine incomprehension and concern. No one in their right minds would freely agree to be reduced to a mere guinea pig, Haise knows that. Even the Quinx had their reasons to be turned into what they are now. CCG’s research facility sports too many rumors; most of them awful enough to make Haise’s stomach churn and skin crawl. He couldn’t imagine why Hide would volunteer to be altered and tinkered with like some sort of object by a bunch of obsessed and not necessarily sane nor humane scientists.

Hide’s unsure on how he should answer, temporarily stunned by the unexpected question. When he does manage to regain his composure eventually, he breaks into a small smile, though there’s something in his eyes that doesn’t quite match the expression. Haise couldn’t tell what it is. Is it regret? Remorse? Something along those lines?

“Perhaps I thought of it as a form of repentance.” When Hide speaks, his voice is a whisper; raw, fragile. Haise once again feels the familiar sting in his chest. “Did you know, Haise? I was the one who had my best friend killed.”

xXx

Haise wakes up and discovers that he’s late.

He’d spent the entire of the previous day lying around on his bed, thinking and thinking until his exhaustion finally succeeded in lulling him to sleep.

And his dreams hadn’t exactly been the best ones, either. In his vision, Haise’s in a place that resembles the venue of the ghoul auction too much for his comfort. Nothing makes sense as usual; there’s lots of cheering around him and he gets that he’s running from someone, something. A huge, lumbering thing who’s chasing him down for his blood. The fear he felt from that dream - nightmare, actually - had been so real it roused him from his slumber and sent him rolling down his bed.

A quick glance at the clock on his nightstand was enough to snap him out of his daze and get him moving.

Haise’s twenty minutes late. That wouldn’t have mattered as much if they weren’t scheduled for a meeting with Akira in a little less than an hour (which they sadly were). Haise has too many things to do and too little time. As he strides his way to the bathroom for possibly the quickest shower of his life, he ponders over what sort of breakfast he could whip up in fifteen minutes or less. When it comes to this particular superior, Haise would prefer to be at least half an hour early for their appointments. He isn’t all that keen on receiving yet another Mado Punch in the gut for his tardiness.

Haise doesn’t even bother drying his hair properly after his bath before throwing on his usual work clothes and heading downstairs. The weirdest scent of food being prepared greets him when he steps into the dining hall, and his mind promptly short-circuits for a second. Not to brag, but Haise’s pretty sure he’s the only person in the household who could cook a decent meal without burning something in the process or turning perfectly good ingredients into inedible mush. Judging from the smell that currently wafts in the air, the person behind the stove obviously knows what he’s doing.

Haise tries peering into the kitchen as he approaches the table, his curiosity piqued. Except Saiko, the rest of the Quinx have woken up and are currently stuffing their faces with… is that pancake? Those round, brown slices on their plates definitely look like pancakes.

“Ah, Sassan!” Shirazu greets the moment he sees him walking over, his words slightly muffled by his full mouth. “You’re awake!”

“Good morning,” Haise returns with an apologetic smile. “Sorry I overslept, guys.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Shirazu spears another chunk of his breakfast with his fork. “Hide-san told us not to wake you, anyway.”

Haise arches his eyebrows, otherwise making no comments. Seeing that the kids are decently fed and are already halfway through their morning meal, Haise allows himself to relax. Looks like they’ll be in time after all. He exhales an inaudible breath of relief and heads into the kitchen to make himself his daily cup of coffee.

Hide’s making more pancakes when Haise joins him in the cooking space, whistling merrily as he pours some batter onto a pan. Instead of an apron, Hide wears an old faded oversized t-shirt over his clothes to avoid staining them. He glances at Haise’s direction when the latter stops a little away from him and reaches to retrieve his packet of coffee beans from one of the top cabinets.

“Morning, sleepyhead,” he says, sounding as cheery as ever. Haise still couldn’t quite believe how the Hide whom he’d conversed with the previous afternoon is the very same person as the blond young man before him now. How could Hide put up such an upbeat, convincing front when he’s carrying so much pain inside? How could he conceal it so well?

How could he stand it?

Haise had spent the majority of the previous night trying in vain to find an answer.

“Good morning,” Haise says, doing his best to sound normal. That’s right. Haise had come to a resolution. If Hide’s working so hard, then he should do his part as well. He should also help in keeping things ordinary. “It smells really great,” he adds, indicating the food he’s cooking. Hide grins at the compliment.

“Well, pancakes are one of my culinary specialties.” He runs a thumb across his nose and sniffs, trying and failing to sound humble. He averts his attention back to his task. “Also, dry your hair properly later, okay? You’ll catch a cold in this weather if you leave it like that.”

Haise hums, making a mental note to do exactly that after he finishes brewing his coffee. The two of them then proceed to slip into a lapse of comfortable silence, letting the mundane sounds of kitchen utensils fill their ears. It’s calming as long as they don’t delve too deep into their thoughts. They don’t have to think about it. Just let it be another typical morning.

“How long have you known?” Haise finally asks, still not making any eye contact with his companion as he carefully pours his beverage into a mug he had ready. “That I’m a half-ghoul.”

Hide takes his time before answering him. Whether he’s doing that deliberately or not, Haise isn’t sure. Hide turns off the gas, and after grabbing a fork from the cabinet, he lifts the pan from the stove by its handle, turns to face him, and casually begins eating his share of breakfast straight from the equipment.

“Since the very beginning,” he tells him, his tone completely out of tune with his actions. Haise has trouble doubting him all the same because now that he thinks of it, it makes sense. He hadn’t noticed it all along because Hide had blended in with them so well, but he’d only questioned his eating habits once or twice so far. He’d never made any comments nor pressured him to eat when he sat out during meals. Hide has obviously been aware of the fact all along.

“Weren’t you afraid?” Haise blurts out before he could stop himself. All this while, he’d been so worried that Hide will find out what he really is and fear him for that. He’d been so scared that he would treat him differently once he knew the truth.

Hide proceeds to shoot him an incredulous look; as if he’d just asked him something incredibly stupid. “Of you? Of course not.”

“Even now?” Haise holds his gaze. There’s no way Hide wouldn’t be even a little bit fearful of him after what had happened. He’d seen him losing control, seen the bloodthirst that belonged to him and yet isn’t his. He’d seen how he’d literally ripped another into pieces. He’d seen him attacking a teammate without as much as a second thought. There’s no way Hide’s view on him hasn’t changed even by the slightest.

As a response to his question, Hide raises an eyebrow and tilts his head slightly to the side. “Shouldn’t that be obvious?”

And from the look in his eyes, Haise decides that maybe it is.

“We’re so dead,” Shirazu laments as he and the rest of his squad make their way through one of the hallways of CCG’s main building. They’re all about to bear the full force of Akira’s wrath for disobeying orders, and he is not ready for it. He doesn’t even see what they’d done wrong! Was trying to help someone they care for a bad thing? They could not have seriously expected them to simply sit back and wait while their comrades were in danger.

“You can’t be dad,” Hide speaks, sounding unnecessarily conflicted. “I’m dad.”

“Hide-san, please.”

“At least we don’t have to face Associate Special Class Washuu again, ugh.” Hide makes a face. “Thank goodness that geezer cares more about results than whatever happens in between. I don’t think I can stand another conference with him without walking over to put a paper bag over his head.”

“That ‘geezer’ you speak of is only twenty-nine years old,” Haise reminds him with a small frown. Frankly, even he had forgotten the age of Division II’s director until that moment. “And I don’t see how being reprimanded by Akira-san’s any better.”

“At least she’s easier on the eyes,” Hide argues, though he fully knows how their superior can jolly well singlehandedly beat them all senseless if they happen to make one wrong move or use a poor choice of words. But it couldn’t be that bad, could it? It’s not like the operation got messed up because of them or anything, right?

As it turns out, Hide’s only half correct. Akira’s unexpectedly lenient with the Quinx; only going as far as warning them that they might get killed in the future if they made defying orders and recklessness a habit. She also crushes Urie’s dreams by telling them that their actions had costed the promotions of every member of the team; though each of them are still awarded a raise in salary, nonetheless - they couldn’t possibly not give them anything after all their effort. At any rate, their misconducts had apparently outweighed their achievements in the eyes of the higher-ups - even if most of their decisions had been made with a pure reason in mind.

On the bright side, none of them are reduced to tears. Except maybe Urie - who, looks really constipated after being told he wouldn’t be receiving a boost in rank. Hide couldn’t help wondering what’s driving him to try so hard. He must have his reasons to be so obsessed with getting acknowledgements.

Hide involuntarily gulps when Akira excuses the kids first, leaving Haise and him to face her by themselves in the small conference room they’re occupying. Here comes the real storm. Hide subtly fixes his posture; his arms folded firmly behind his back, his shoulders straight and not slumped forward, his chin tilted to a proper height. Wouldn’t want to give her more things to nag him on right now. Hide holds his breath and waits for the lady to begin speaking.

“Would you boys care to explain yourselves?” Akira prompts as soon as the door closes, crossing her arms. Although she used the term ‘boys’, she’s mainly glaring at Hide. The blond steels himself, and promptly launches into an explanation. He tells her how he hadn’t the heart to let Mutsuki into that auction after seeing how utterly terrified he’d been towards the entire thing, how he couldn’t possibly let someone so young go through something that could permanently traumatize him. He explains his doubts about Juuzou being able to effectively act as a decoy while watching over Mutsuki at the same time since he does have the tendency to get too carried away at times. And since Hide couldn’t go in the younger boy’s place, he’d decided to sneak in and join auction instead.

Haise chimes in a little later, admitting to have approved of Hide’s decisions based on the same reasons. Mutsuki’s too young to go through another nightmare. It’s seems almost unreasonable to insist for him to go when he’s obviously scared out of his wits; not to mention his combat abilities aren’t top notch and he could barely even wield his Quinque efficiently. He’d be overpowered in an instant. As his superiors, they couldn’t just do nothing about it.

Akira keeps an impossibly straight face throughout their ramble, clearly unimpressed by their reasoning. When the two boys have finished talking, she tells them outright; “The both of you are not the Quinx’s parents.”

Hide gets the feeling he shouldn’t have taken half as much offense as he did. It is the truth, no matter what he thinks. But still.

“Even if we’re not,” Haise says, amazingly unaffected by the remark. His voice is carefully leveled. “We’re still in charge of taking care of them.”

“Your duty, Rank 1 Sasaki, is to raise an investigator who can surpass Special Class Arima,” Akira corrects, her tone cold, professional. “Babysitting and spoiling a group of youngsters is not part of your job.”

You’re making it sound as though I shouldn’t even treat them as humans. Haise bites his lip, and refrains from saying anything else. Unfortunately, Hide isn’t exactly in the position to worry about him.

“And you, Rank 1 Nagachika,” Akira continues, addressing the blond with the same icy manner. “What made you think you wouldn’t be suspected of leaking information to the ghouls had the operation ended up a failure?”

“But it didn’t.” Hide wills himself to maintain eye contact. “Isn’t that all that matters?”

Akira stares at him for a little while longer, her expression unreadable. Hide’s just bracing himself for an inevitable beating when she abruptly looks away and breaks into a tired sigh. “Do you have any idea how much trouble I had to go through just to convince the higher-ups that you boys knew what you were doing and that your actions and decision would not affect the overall plan?” she demands, placing her hands on her hips.

Now they feel guilty. The boys bow their head apologetically.

“-Sorry.”

“-We apologize.”

Akira huffs, her gaze rapidly losing its initial stoniness. Maybe, Hide thinks, she understands after all. Maybe she understands how it is to be young and impulsive and brash and overprotective. How it feels to be willing to do anything for a subordinate who’s like a family to them.

“As if a simple ‘sorry’ is enough to make up for it.” Without a warning, Akira knocks her knuckles on her subordinates’ foreheads. Haise and Hide wince, immediately voicing their protests. “Don’t think the two of you can do anything you please just because you have Director Washuu’s favor. ”

“This will be the first and last time,” Hide promises somberly, crossing his fingers behind his back. He then tries for a charming smile. “And would you like us to treat you for lunch in order to compensate for your troubles, Akira-san?”

“I’ve got reports to finish writing,” Akira declines flatly. “And so do you boys. The deadline’s in two days.”

Well kick Hide in the shin; he’d forgotten all about it. He figures it’s the same for Haise too, judging from the way he’s breaking out in cold sweat at the mention of the topic.

“Surely you can spare even a little time for a meal?” Hide presses on, anxious to get back on her good side. If he’s lucky enough, they won’t get yelled at even if they end up turning in the report a little late. “I mean, it’s not healthy for a fine woman of your age to be missing meals and stuff-”

“Just get it done in time,” Akira says, easily seeing through his ulterior motives. Women sure are scary with their intuitions. She walks around her subordinates and towards the door. “You’ve got the rest of the week off, don’t you? You lucky kids can afford all-nighters.”

“You’re exceptionally beautiful today!”

Hide flinches when the door slams shut.

xXx

Despite himself, Haise’s relieved that Akira hadn’t mentioned anything about him losing control and wrecking the place.

Or maybe she’s just waiting for another day to tell him in private that it’s his last chance and that he’d be executed the next time he goes out of control. Oh, joy. Haise couldn’t wait to feel even worse than he did the day before.

“Hey, buddy - you okay there?” Hide asks right after hearing him heave a humongous sigh. Haise averts his gaze towards him, offering him a weary smile. Hide’s always asking him that, isn’t he? He’d also always assured him that everything’s alright, hadn’t he? Sometimes, Haise really thinks he isn’t worth so much of a Hide’s concern. A person like him doesn’t deserve so much care, so much attention.

“Just a little tired,” Haise replies with a weak laugh. It’s not fully a lie. His thoughts are still a little muddled and he’s starting to feel sluggish now that all the excitement’s over. He knows it couldn’t be the lingering effects of the tranquilizer bullet to his leg - they’re not designed to last that long. Maybe he’s seriously falling sick? Could he even fall sick?

“You think you make it back home? Should we get a cab instead?” Hide says, eyebrows knitted. They’re on their way to retrieve the things Hide had left behind in a backstreet after changing into his disguise for the auction. Haise has already lost all sense of direction after all those twists and turns, but since Hide looks totally sure about where he’s going, he’s not too worried.

“I’ll be fine, Hide,” Haise says, stifling a yawn just as Hide comes to a stop at a specific alley. He stands back and watches as the blond approaches a wooden crate, lifting its lid to reveal a black satchel stuffed with his belongings underneath.

“Just keep in mind that I probably won’t be able to carry you all the way back if you faint in between,” Hide says, slinging the strap of his bag over one shoulder. He does one last inspection to make sure he didn’t leave out anything before turning to face his companion once more. “But seriously though, you should take it easy when we get home. Wouldn’t want to end up overworking.”

“Speak for yourself,” Haise tells him dryly, noting the faint shadows under the blond’s eyes when he trudges to his side. Hide only smiles lopsidedly in reponse.

“Actually, I was thinking of hibernating the entire afternoon to pull an all-nighter later,” he says, gesturing for them to start walking again while ignoring the small frown he’d promptly received after voicing his declaration.

“I don’t think that’s-“ Haise starts but stops short when he notices his phone vibrating in his pocket. The fact that he managed to receive any signal at all while being surrounded by tall walls is amazing enough. Without thinking too much into it, Haise fishes for his cell and picks up the call; inadvertently forgetting to check the caller ID before answering.

“Haise,” a deep, masculine voice sounds as soon as the line connects. Haise stiffens, recognizing its owner at once. But why so sudden? Why is he calling him now of all times? Haise’s heart races against his will, but he swallows, and motioning to the concerned blond that it’s nothing big, he manages to answer;

“Arima-san.”

Chapter Text

Urie is unusually conflicted.

It would not be entirely correct to say he’d regretted his actions during the operation. However, it isn’t quite right to say he hadn’t regretted what he did at all, either. Urie isn’t sorry about wanting to attack his superior to earn himself the promotion he wanted. He isn’t sorry for deciding what’s the best for himself.

Sure, Hide had gotten himself injured protecting him. That’s not exactly his problem; which is why he’d refused to apologize even after Shirazu threatened to murder him in his sleep. Twice. Urie hadn’t asked to be saved, hadn’t asked to be pushed out of the way when he’s sure he could end things in one well-aimed stab. It’s not his fault that his blond superior had been brasher than all of them combined.

Urie could not understand Hide. What are his motives? What is he trying to achieve by joining Sasaki in his crappy ‘parent’ act? Why did he take the brunt of an attack in his place when he knows he’s a Quinx and that his regeneration would eventually kick in anyway? Why did he let himself be turned into one of CCG’s test subjects for no solid reason?

Who exactly is he to have managed to calm the rampaging Sasaki when no one else could?

The fact that he’s denied a promotion rattled Urie more than he’s willing to admit. He doesn’t see how endangering their lives would affect the higher-ups’ judgment towards their performance. Isn’t putting their lives at stake basically the job of a ghoul investigator? Isn’t risking their lives the only way they could actually get things done? What a bunch of hypocrites.

Guilt isn’t something Urie would normally feel, so he couldn’t quite understand why he felt as bothered as he currently is. Whatever. He has bigger problems to deal with at the moment.

Like Special Class Arima’s visit, for example.

Actually scratch that - it isn’t really that much of a big deal. According to what Sasaki had told them, Arima’s only coming over to borrow some books and perhaps check on them a bit. His timing might be a little questionable, but given how busy of person he is, Urie supposes he wouldn’t be able to choose another day even if he wanted to. At any rate, Urie doesn’t see the need to do any last-minute spring cleaning before the man arrives. It’s not like the chateau resembles a pigsty or anything (not the common areas, at least) and he doubts Arima would care about something as insignificant as the amount of dust gathered on the flower vases.

Unfortunately, no one else seems to share his sentiments. The squad bustles around the entire afternoon, trying to make their home look at least slightly more presentable to the superior whose visit they’re anticipating that evening. Urie realizes later on that perhaps the reason why everyone else is willing to do so much extra work is because they wanted a distraction rather than to give a pretentious image. He’s not going to deny - they’re all in danger of overthinking after all they’d done, seen and heard at this point. Being kept occupied is one of the only ways to keep their thoughts from wandering off to dangerous territories.

Nevertheless, sweeping the endless amount of leaves from their front yard does little to stop the gears in Urie’s mind from turning. He’d already left an impression on Special Class Arima before. Perhaps he of all people would understand his mindset and ways. Perhaps he would see the necessity in his actions. If Urie’s lucky, he might even be able to indirectly convince Arima into talking to the superiors to change their minds. As CCG’s strongest ghoul investigator, that man definitely holds enough power to do that.

Urie knows it wouldn’t be easy trying to make it all seem subtle. The members of his squad would judge him and one wrong wording would give his intentions away. But he still has to try. He has to grasp hold of every chance he gets. He can’t admit defeat so easily.

He has to try.

xXx

Haise honestly thinks he shouldn’t be feeling so nervous.

It’s not like Arima’s coming over to yell at him for losing control again, right? His visit has nothing to do with work, he’d said so himself. He’s just coming over to borrow more books and see his ‘grandchildren’ and enjoy some dinner with them. He’s not going to judge them. He never had. Haise doesn’t need to worry.

He could tell that the others are anxious as well. It’s the effect of having someone important and famous personally visiting them, Haise guesses. Even after all the time he’d spent with the older man, Haise still can’t help feeling the vast distinction between them every time they meet. There’s just something about Arima - his demeanor, the air he carries around him, the title he holds - that seems to draw a fine line between his existence and that of others. There’s something about him that simply brands him as different.

Haise couldn’t help thinking how lonely it must feel for him.

When the doorbell rings a little after Haise had finished cooking the last dish for their dinner, Hide hurries to answer it because everyone else were either occupied or a tad bit too intimidated to move. Haise hopes the blond isn’t still thinking about staying up all night to get his share of report done. God knows what nonsense he may accidentally type out in his sleep-deprived state. Haise decides to suggest procrastinating one more night so that Hide could have a proper rest and finish everything tomorrow.

The quietness of the few minutes following Hide’s departure to the front door takes Haise by surprise. He’d honestly expected to hear Hide energetically greeting their superior all the way from where he stands in the kitchen, but apparently, no such thing happens. Huh. Even Hide respects Arima enough to refrain from being overly familiar with him, it seems. Haise hangs his apron on its peg and heads to the hallway, meaning to join the blond in greeting their guest.

“Arima-san!” Haise calls out cheerily as soon as he spots the white-haired man making his way towards his general direction. The latter’s wearing his usual clothes; a long-sleeved collared shirt and a pair of dark trousers - even Haise had never seen him in anything else.

“Haise,” Arima says, his voice missing the coldness it always has when he’s speaking to almost everyone else except the boy in question. The corners of his lips curl upwards ever so slightly - probably something closest to a smile the entire world would ever witness him wear.  “I see that you’re doing well.”

“Same to you,” Haise says in return, waiting for him to walk over before leading him further into their home. “Come on inside. I’ve just finished preparing the food.”

“Are the Quinx here?” Arima asks as he trudges alongside his subordinate, looking at him through the corner of his eye.

“They’re setting up the table,” Haise affirms, stepping into the dining hall. He turns away from the older man to announce; “Guys, Arima-san’s here!”

He only realizes afterwards that perhaps that wasn’t a such good move after all. Shirazu stands up from his seat so quickly that he bumps his hip hard on the edge of the table. Mutsuki almost drops all the cutlery he’s holding and Saiko nearly spills the contents of the jug she’s carrying. Urie’s the only who manages to remain composed. The usual.

“G-Good evening!” the kids chime in an uneven chorus, and for some reason Haise’s getting second-hand embarrassment from simply watching them. They’re all so awkward, gosh.

“That was a disaster,” Hide comments out of the blue, materializing behind Haise and walking around him to reach the table first. Come to think of it, he wasn’t with Arima when Haise went out to welcome the senior investigator just now, was he? Haise catches a glimpse of his habitual grin when he passes him. “I’m sure Arima-san would rather eat Haise’s cooking than any of you, so try not to be so stiff, yeah? You’ll make him feel out of place like this.”

Arima’s expression didn’t change and he said nothing, so Haise isn’t sure if Hide had been even remotely right about him feeling out of place. He decides not to delve too deep into that, instead gesturing to the man to take a seat while they serve dinner.

In a little while, they’ve all settled down with all the food laid out and Arima sitting at the head of the table. Haise and Hide occupies the place on either side of him, followed by the Quinx so three of them are taking up the space along each length of the table. It’s a slightly tight fit since the furniture is designed to cater six people only, but they didn’t exactly fancy anyone being left out either (Haise volunteered since he isn’t going to eat anyway), so they compromised with this.

“So, Arima-san,” Haise begins after around five minutes of listening to nothing but the clinking of cutlery, looking up from fiddling his fingers. He’s not good at starting up small talk himself, but he figures he has to do something about the silence that’s hanging in the air. Meals don’t feel quite right when there’s no conversation going on at all. But what can he talk about? Asking about work would be a little bland. Asking for his thoughts on his cooking might sound a bit narcissistic of him. Asking about the weather is downright weird. “Umm, how are you these days?”

He thought Hide would start giving him looks of disappointment at his awful communication skills from across the table, but the latter seems satisfied with his question. It’s a challenge coming up with something to say when it comes to someone so stoic and seemingly distant. Since even Hide hadn’t been able to start the chitchat, Haise considers his initiative an achievement.

“Quite good,” Arima answers, then pausing to chew on a piece of marinated chicken. He hasn’t made any comments about the food thus far, so Haise takes it that he’s okay with the taste. After spending all those days he’d spent training under his tutelage, Haise had learnt that Arima tended to express his feelings and thoughts through actions rather than words. When their gazes abruptly meet, Haise blinks and raises his eyebrows questioningly. “I heard about the operation, by the way.”

The entire squad bristles uneasily at the mention of the mission. Here comes yet another round of being nagged; and by CCG’s strongest ghoul investigator too, no less. Haise feels dread weighing down on his shoulders already. He should’ve expected Arima to bring this up despite his assurances on the phone - he won’t know what else he could talk about with them otherwise, knowing him. It’s a shame; Haise had really hoped they could somehow avoid the topic. It would be incredibly difficult trying to lift his team’s spirit again if they are to be discouraged by Arima’s words now.

“We apparently messed up quite a bit,” Haise admits with a sheepish laugh in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere - though ‘quite a bit’ might be somewhat of an understatement considering what had actually happened. Arima gives him a significant look.

“I don’t really see what’s wrong with what all of you have done,” he says evenly, promptly earning himself half a dozen stares of bewilderment. “You’ve all produced decent results nonetheless and disobeying orders isn’t something new in our line of work.”

“Well, yeah, but..” I went crazy and almost killed people, Haise doesn’t voice the last part. He trains his gaze on a spot on the table, suddenly not daring to look up. Arima hadn’t said anything the first time because no one had really been hurt. It’s different now. Haise had done something he could not undo.

When Haise does dare to lift his gaze again after they’d entered a brief lapse of silence, he realizes that his squad too, has mixed emotions about the older man’s statement. Shirazu and Saiko look sort of relieved - happy, even. Haise figures they should be. They’d done a lot assisting in the rescue of the victims. If there’s anyone who deserves a word or two of praise, it’s them. Mutsuki, on the other hand, looks slightly nauseous. Like he couldn’t believe he’s being acknowledged for a wrongdoing he’d committed. Sadly, Haise could relate. He makes up his mind to sit down and have a talk with his subordinate when he has the chance. Something seems to have been bothering him since the end of the operation.

Meanwhile, Hide’s taking an extreme interest towards the piece of spinach on his plate, almost as if he’s bracing himself for something. Urie’s usually apathetic eyes now have an unusual fire in them.

“They’re being biased because we’re not like them,” the dark-haired boy says, setting down his cutlery and meeting Arima’s eyes in a rather bold manner. Even though that isn’t far from the truth, Haise couldn’t believe he had the guts to say that to a senior investigator. Not that Arima would have much to remark on that, now that Haise thinks of it.

“Urie Kuki.” Arima studies the face of the boy who’d so daringly approached Director Washuu himself to have his letter of consent approved. Urie’s gaze doesn’t waver the slightest; Haise has to give him credit for that. “From what I heard, you’d refused to retreat when you were told to, and you even attempted to stop Haise despite only being a Rank 2 investigator.”

“My rank has nothing to do with it,” Urie says steadily. “Someone had to stop  Rank 1 Sasaki before things got out of hand.”

“And you took it upon yourself to be that ‘someone’,” Arima guesses, and Urie nods. “Tell me, Urie; did you really think you could’ve subdued Haise in that state with your current abilities?”

“I believe I wouldn’t know unless I tried.”

Arima stares at the younger boy’s face a little longer. “You have courage, Urie Kuki. I’ll give you that. However,” he reaches to adjust his spectacles, “you underestimate the value of your own life.”

Urie looks ready to protest, but Arima’s obviously done talking. The rest of the conversation basically dies there, but thankfully, everyone’s pretty much finished with their dinner. Hide offers to clean the dishes once they were all done eating, and since he sounds like he’s insisting and leaving Arima alone doesn’t exactly seem very courteous of him as a host, Haise entrusts the task to the blond and heads back to the table where their superior remained even after everyone else had retired to the lounge.

“Do you want to get the books now, Arima-san?” he asks, and the older man nods, rising from his seat. As he brings Arima to his bedroom, Haise sneaks a glance at the Quinx when he passes them just to make sure they’re doing alright. Shirazu’s fixing a gaming console onto the TV with Saiko, Mutsuki’s absently watching them from behind and Urie’s brooding in a corner. Yeah, they seem fine.

Haise hangs back and lets Arima browse through his collection once they’re in his room, idly observing the way the latter traces his fingers across the spines of the books in search for an unfamiliar title that strikes his fancy. It’s not an unusual habit for a reader, but for some reason, that alone makes Arima seem so much more.. human. Arima Kishou may be gifted to the point of being called a ‘god’ when it comes to slaying ghouls, but he’s still human in many other ways.

“You underestimate the value of your own life,” Haise quotes all of the sudden, the man’s words from earlier popping into his mind. When Arima glances at him over his shoulder, Haise flashes him a crooked smile. “Somehow, I don’t really want to hear that from you, Arima-san.”

Arima, as Haise had anticipated, says nothing in response. He turns his attention back to the shelf, and in a few minutes, he’d settled for a total of six books; four one-shot novels and two short story collections. Haise then offers the older man a paper bag he’d stashed in one of his drawers to prepare for instances like this. Arima mutters his thanks, carefully slipping the reading materials into the bag before shifting his hold to carry them properly.

“Are you going to stay a little longer?” Haise asks as they exit the room. Arima checks his wristwatch, and shakes his head.

“I suppose I should get going,” he says, readjusting his grip on the parcel. “It’s getting late, and I wouldn’t want to keep you booked for the night.”

There’s a split second of wordlessness. Then Haise tentatively speaks; “Was that supposed to be a pun?”

Arima’s ability to keep a pokerface is insane. “I suppose it was.”

Haise wisely decides to make no further comments. Arima might’ve been the one who got him into his pun-fever in the first place, but that doesn’t mean he’s exceptionally good in making some himself. Heck, even Haise cringes at his own particularly bad puns at times.

“How does it feel like, working with Nagachika?”

Arima’s query is so abrupt and straightforward that Haise almost doesn’t catch it. Wait - what does he mean, ‘how does it feel like’?

“He’s been a really great help,” Haise says, half wary of it being some sort of trick question. “He’s reliable and efficient in his job and-“ He couldn’t help smiling to himself, subconsciously letting some fondness tinge his voice. “It’s been a lot livelier here ever since he came.”

Arima gazes at him a minute longer before turning away to start towards the front door. “I see.”

“What’s with the sudden question, though?” Haise says as he tails after the older man. Was Hide different before he was assigned to their squad? It almost sounds that way; judging from how their discussion is going, but Haise also gets the feeling that that’s not it. Arima’s meaning something else, and Haise’s not getting it.

“Just wondering,” Arima dismisses, his tone hard to read as always. He’s quiet for a few more steps before adding, “It looks like your ‘family’ is complete now, Haise.”

Haise doesn’t know why he blushed, but he did. “I-I guess so?”

Arima doesn’t utter anything else right until he’s tugging on his shoes in the entryway after retrieving his coat. “I’ll return these as soon as I can,” he says once he’d straightened up, indicating the books he’s holding.

“Ah, take your time; I’m in no hurry to read them anyway,” Haise tells him with a slight smile and a shake of his head. “And it’s been a pleasure having you over, Arima-san.”

“I’ll drop by again another day,” Arima promises. Despite himself, Haise could only keep hoping he’d have the chance. Things might not be so peaceful the next time they meet. Every subsequent reunion with Arima could just be his last; it’s something he could never forget. 

“Be careful on the way home,” Haise tells the older man as he steps out of the house, lifting his hand in a small wave. Arima acknowledges his request with a subtle nod.

He then shuts the door, and he’s gone.

xXx

Shirazu has to admit: he’d expected Arima Kishou to be more intimidating of a man.

Sure, he’s got that sort of aura and that mysterious, aloof personality and Shirazu’s a bundle of nerves just sharing a table with him - but overall, he doesn’t seem much different from other grown-ups his age apart from his pure white hair. When he’s not at work, the CCG’s grim reaper he’d heard so much about is just another guy with little to no social skills when he’s with someone other than Sassan.

On the side note, Shirazu’s been in a great mood ever since Arima came over for dinner. The senior investigator hadn’t exactly openly recognized his efforts, but to him, it’s good enough. Even if it’s indirect, Shirazu’s glad to be assured that caring for others wasn’t a mistake, that being worried for his teammate is good enough of a reason to risk his life.

“Sassan, Hide-san.” Shirazu knocks on the door to his mentor’s study before pushing the panel from its frame to look inside. In order to complete their report on the operation before the deadline tomorrow, his two superiors have decided to spend the entire day holed up in the room doing nothing but that. Haise’s seated before his computer, his round glasses balanced on the bridge of his nose and his eyes scanning across a piece of paper he’s holding. Hide has made himself comfortable on the floor, his laptop placed on a chair he’d fetched from the room next door to be used as makeshift table. His fingers doesn’t stop moving across the keyboard even when he glances up at the sound of Shirazu’s voice.

“Oh, hey,” Hide says, visibly brightening up once he sees him. Even after sharing with them about his condition, Shirazu still thought of Hide as somewhat of an enigma. He’d merely answered like, what - three out of a hundred questions Shirazu has towards him? There’s so much more about himself that Hide has yet to reveal. What’s his relationship with the pretty waitress in the café? How did he know that Sassan’s a half-ghoul? Why did he let himself be turned into a test subject? How is he able to stop Sassan when he’s out of control with his voice and words alone?

Who exactly is he?

“What’s wrong, Shirazu-kun?” Haise turns on his chair to face his subordinate, eyebrows arched in question. It’s strange, Shirazu muses, how different he looks when he’s wearing glasses.

“Just thought I’d let you guys know that I’m taking Tooru and Saiko out for burgers.” Shirazu moves to open the door wider so he wouldn’t need to strain his neck while talking. Hide perks up at the mention of the food.

“I know a place-“ he starts, but he seems to think better of it at the last minute, and abruptly clamps up. When he shoots him a sheepish smile later, Shirazu couldn’t help thinking how it looks a little strained. “You know what - nevermind. Have fun!”

Okay, but what the heck was that about? Shirazu glances at Haise to see if he noticed anything wrong, but if the latter saw the blond falter, he isn’t letting on. Shirazu decides that perhaps it’s best for him to act oblivious as well. He’s aware that Hide hasn’t exactly been himself lately. He’s spacing out quite a bit and it kind of seems like he’d lost a little of his usual energy. Maybe even Hide-san has his days.

“We will,” Shirazu assures with a surprisingly easygoing laugh. “And good luck with the reports, you two.”

He grins wider when he receives a chorus of groans from his superiors at the reminder of their work. He then takes a step back, and shutting the door, he turns on his heels and heads to regroup with his teammates.

They have absolutely no idea where they should go for burgers.

Shirazu hasn’t done any research about the chains located in their area, nor has he went around surveying what those places had to offer even though he planned on treating his mates. Mutsuki takes little interest in going out for fast food (though he does enjoy eating them every once in a while) so it’s a given that he wouldn’t know. Saiko knows almost every brand of potato chips there is, but she’s pretty much clueless when it comes to actual meals.

Shirazu tries not to sigh as he keeps walking. It’ll take a while before they’ll be able to decide on a place to eat at, but having the chance to wander around isn’t so bad. It’s better than trying to pass the day at home with nothing much to do, anyway. And with the recent events behind them, even Shirazu feels the need to immerse himself in normalcy just to remember that despite everything that’d happened, life goes on. While they work hard in maintaining peace by taking down aggressive ghouls, the rest of society gets to carry on with their daily activities without having to worry about being targeted. That’s just how it works.

The odd trio ends up settling for Mos burgers around an hour later because Saiko had apparently heard about the stuff and wanted to try it out. Since they didn’t have any better ideas (and Shirazu’s on the verge of starving to death already), the boys didn’t argue. Shirazu’s sure glad he didn’t because his teriyaki burger is beyond amazing.

He’s halfway through his food when he notices that Saiko had paused from savoring her fried chicken fillet, staring straight ahead at Mutsuki who’s sitting by his side. When Shirazu shifts to glance at the other boy, he sees that he’d barely even nibbled on his rice burger. He’s just about to ask if the food’s really that terrible until he realizes that that’s not exactly it. Mutsuki’s gaze is bleary and unfocused and upon closer inspection, Shirazu spots the huge bags under his eyes.

“Mu-chan, you okay?” Saiko’s the first to ask, her brow furrowed with worry. Shirazu figures Mutsuki must look even worse than he thinks he does; to concern Saiko to this degree.

“H-Huh?” Mutsuki blinks as if coming out of a trance. He takes a second longer to register the girl’s question, and lets out a weak laugh. “U-Um.. yeah. I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine,” Shirazu observes, and the shorter boy tenses, bowing his head to hide his face. “If something’s bothering you, you can talk to us about it, you know.”

“It’s nothing,” Mutsuki insists, refusing to meet his companions’ gazes. His food is in danger of falling apart in his hands due to his tightening grip. Shirazu wants to press on, to make him spill out his worries so they could at least try to think up of a way to help lessen his misery, but Saiko stops him with a short call of his name and a firm look of warning. Leave it for now, she seems to be saying.

Shirazu wonders since when she could read moods so well. Then again, it isn’t very hard to figure out that Mutsuki’s not at all willing to  share whatever’s in his mind right now. If Shirazu keeps insisting on knowing, he might end up pushing Tooru even further away.

But he can’t just leave him when he’s looking so distressed.

“Tooru-“ Shirazu starts, but stops short when Mutsuki lifts his face and manages to offer his companions a shaky smile.

“Really, thank you both for your concern,” he says, his voice almost as soft as a whisper. “And thanks so much for going as far as treating me, Shirazu-kun. But I’m sorry- I-“ He swallows once, slowly putting down his burger. “I just can’t seem to find the appetite.”

“You were eating fine until yesterday, though,” Saiko points out anxiously, and Mutsuki could only shrug.

“Sorry.” He averts his gaze once more. Shirazu and Saiko couldn’t find anything else to say even when  the shorter boy eventually moves to shoulder the strap of his bag before getting to his feet, his expression wholly apologetic.

“You two should enjoy your lunch without me ruining the mood,” he says, and part of Shirazu wants to beat him up for simply daring to say that. Fortunately, he manages to hold himself back. “There’s.. there’s someplace I need to go.”

“And you’re not gonna tell us where either, huh?” Shirazu says through gritted teeth. Mutsuki’s eyes remain focused away.

“I’ll.. probably be back before dinner,” he says, though he sounds uncertain himself. Shirazu watches as the shorter boy slips out from behind their table, his movements slightly jerky as though they’d lost their fluidity. Sometimes, Shirazu wishes he’s more perceptive so he could decipher things without having to be told their meaning outright. It’ll definitely be useful when it comes to handling his annoyingly secretive teammates.

“Just be safe, okay, Tooru?” Shirazu sighs at last, speaking up just before the boy in question could walk off. Mutsuki turns to stare at him wide-eyed for a brief moment, like he couldn’t believe he’s letting him run off just like that. Still holding his gaze, Shirazu takes a bite out of his burger, his lack of amusement obvious on his face. “What are you still standing there for? Didn’t you say you had to go somewhere?”

 “I..” Mutsuki then snaps out of his stupor. His smile, albeit small, is more genuine this time. “Yeah. I will.”

And before his teammates could have time for second thoughts, he hurries to the exit of the fast-food joint and leaves.

xXx

Mutsuki makes a quick detour back to the chateau to fetch his Quinque before heading out again.

His two superiors were so caught up with their work that they didn’t even come out to check when he accidentally banged his briefcase against a wall while he was sneaking out. Mutsuki couldn’t help but wonder where they got all their concentration from. Then again, with the deadline so close and so many things to report about, it’s not like they had much of a choice.

Despite it being an off-day for most of the investigators who’d taken part in the auction operation, Mutsuki meets up with Juuzou in the CCG’s 13th Ward branch office. When he spots the older boy draped across one of the sofas in the lounge (and Mutsuki thought he was early), the first things that catch his eye are the piece of plaster on his cheek and the bandage wrapped around his left forearm. Apart from that, there’s no noticeable difference to his character and appearance. Mutsuki had heard that Juuzou had specifically targeted Big Madam during the wipeout plan - which, if he guessed correctly, meant he probably had a personal score to settle with the ghoul. For someone who’d possibly gotten his revenge, Associate Special Class Suzuya sure doesn’t look very elated.

“Suzuya-san,” Mutsuki greets as he approaches him, the palms of his hands suddenly beginning to feel sweaty. Whether it’s from dread or anticipation, he doesn’t know. Juuzou stops fiddling with the straps of his suspenders when he hears him, his gaze flickering towards his direction.

“Ooh, it’s Mutsuki-kun,” he drawls with a lazy smile. He sort of reminds Mutsuki of a cat, but of course he doesn’t say that out loud. Juuzou proceeds to prop himself upright with his elbows before swinging his legs off the couch and bouncing to his feet with an audible “Hup!”. He then faces the younger investigator and asks, “Shall we go?”

He starts walking deeper into the building without even looking back to make sure Mutsuki’s following him. By the time the latter manages to catch up to his superior, he’s embarrassingly out of breath. Juuzou finally stops before a door at the end of the hallway and pushes it open, slipping into the room beyond with Mutsuki right behind him.

The reason why the both of them had agreed on meeting inside the building and not somewhere else is because they wanted the facility and privacy the place provided. The two boys currently stand in a sort of training room occasionally used by investigators to either spar or test out their Quinque or simply blow off some steam. Juuzou trudges to the opposite corner of the room and bends down, picking up a couple of his knives that he’d left strewn on the floor earlier.

“Something’s bothering you.”

Mutsuki doesn’t even have the will to deny because who was he trying to kid - if even Shirazu and Saiko noticed, it should be painfully clear.

“Suzuya-san,” he starts, his hands twisting into the front of his trousers. He shifts his weight from foot to foot. “Would you listen to what I have to say?”

“Isn’t that half the reason why you called to meet me in the first place?” Juuzou says, twirling his knives between his fingers. Reluctantly, Mutsuki nods. He inhales a sharp breath to calm his quickening heartbeat. He hadn’t told his own teammates this because he knows that somehow or another, they wouldn’t understand. They won’t know how it feels like; to have this unwanted guilt gnawing away at his thoughts like a parasite. He isn’t even sure why he’d wanted to have this discussion with Suzuya. Which part about him does he think is different from everyone else to compel him to seek him of all people to hear him out? His seemingly indifferent personality? His lack of hesitation in shedding blood? His queer sense of responsibility?

“I killed a person.”

The words leave Mutsuki’s mouth with unexpected ease. Throughout the past few days, he’d never dared to say them out loud, fearing that once he voices them they’d take solid form and crush him under their weight. But now that he did, he feels unexpectedly.. relieved. Almost like he’s been freed from an invisible burden - which doesn’t even make sense because all he wants now is to be blamed, to be damned for taking a life and not to be patted on the back and told that murder is no big deal.

“A person?” Juuzou tilts his head and blinks blankly. “Or a ghoul?”

Mutsuki stares back at those large, occasionally unnerving eyes. “Does it matter?”

“In our field of work, yeah.” Juuzou absently begins juggling his blades behind his back. “Exterminating ghouls is part of our job. Harming humans is not. If you start feeling bad for killing a ghoul now, then perhaps you’re not fit to be an investigator after all.”

When Mutsuki remains silent, the older boy adds,  “Tell me, Mutsuki-kun; do you think that ghoul you killed would’ve spared you if you hadn’t cut him down first? Do you think he would’ve changed for the better and decided to stop hunting humans if you’d let him live?”

 The answer’s obvious. Mutsuki stops chewing his lip to reply, “No.”

“Instead of beating yourself up for killing one measly ghoul who’s going to be taken down by another investigator sooner or later anyway, why don’t you focus on something else?” Juuzou continues, letting his gaze settle on his companion. “Instead of letting guilt overpower you, why don’t you think of all the lives you’d saved? If you hadn’t stopped that ghoul on the spot, the entire operation would’ve been jeopardized, and we wouldn’t have been able to obtain such a high success rate. More ghouls would’ve escaped, and in turn, more people will be endangered in the future. By executing a single ghoul, you’ve stopped an entire chain reaction from taking place. You’ve taken one life in exchange for saving many others.” He snatches his knives from midair and points one towards Mutsuki’s direction. “Even if what you’ve done is wrong, aren’t all that enough to make up for everything?”

For a moment, Mutsuki’s too dumbfounded to respond. Suzuya.. had a point. An incredibly good point, in fact. For the past couple of days, Mutsuki had been so distracted with his act of killing that he’d completely forgotten to look at the big picture. That’s right. By eliminating one individual, he’d saved the lives of hundreds of people. He’d helped lessen the risks of the entire operation. He’d avenged god-knows how many who’d once fallen victim to the same ghoul. Out of one act of wrongness, he’d played his part in making sure everything else would go right.

It doesn’t change the fact that he’d stained his hands with blood, but it’s all he has.

“I have to apologize, Suzuya-san,” Mutsuki says the first thing after finding his voice again. His tone earns him some raised eyebrows from his companion. “I honestly wasn’t expecting you to be able to say all that.”

“I’m just repeating the things that I’d overheard through the years,” Juuzou admits, shamelessly but truthfully. “Trust me, there are plenty of newbies that feel the same way as you do when they kill the first time. All I’m doing is tell you what all their mentors tell them.”

 “Fair enough,” Mutsuki says, and Juuzou gives him a funny look; like he’s trying to comprehend the progressive change in the younger boy’s demeanor.

“So,” he prompts with a wave his knife after half a minute of silent observation. “You want to start now?”

When Mutsuki meets his gaze, Juuzou could tell that he’s more sure of himself now. He’s finally looking him in the eye and the set of his shoulders indicates his newfound peace of heart. It’s quite the big contrast compared to the Mutsuki from roughly twenty minutes ago. “Sure.”

“Then come at me.”

Mutsuki promptly wavers at Juuzou’s straightforward challenge. There’s absolutely no way he could even lay a finger on him with the vast gap between their abilities, that should be obvious!

“I need to know exactly where you stand before I can teach you anything, don’t I?” Juuzou says, as if reading his mind (then again, with the way he’s gaping at him it shouldn’t be too difficult). Seeing his point, Mutsuki nods, pressing the knob on his suitcase handle to activate his Quinque. Juuzou smiles as the younger boy shifts his hold on the shaft of his daggers and moves into a preparatory stance.

“Give me all you’ve got, Rank 3 Mutsuki.”

Mutsuki steels himself, and lunges forward.

xXx

The evening with Arima would’ve been wonderful if Hide’s plans to sleep hadn’t been completely destroyed like that.

It would’ve also been great if they could somehow extend their deadline for their stupid report.

But most of all, it would’ve been the best if Arima hadn’t handed him the letter and said what he’d said the first thing after Hide opened the door for him.

“You should go for maintenance soon, Nagachika.”

Long story short, Hide doesn’t want to go for ‘maintenance’. Hell, he doesn’t even want to be within a mile from that wretched research facility, let alone waltz back in there like he’s some old timer and ask for a checkup.

But orders are orders, and when it comes to his body, Hide doesn’t really have much he could say. In a way, his body isn’t even his anymore; he’d handed it over to the CCG all those years ago in exchange for sparing his best friend’s life. He should probably just go get the darn thing over and done with.

“Hey, Haise?” Hide speaks, finally shutting down his laptop after an entire day of doing nothing but recounting the events that’d taken place throughout the auction and wording them into useful information. Splitting up the work between Haise and himself should’ve made things at least a little easier, but Hide also had a whole load of other stuff to report on - mainly the condition of the Quinx Squad and anything related because while he tended to forget and it’s most likely just something to mask some ulterior intentions anyway, he’s still assigned to the team to observe and update the higher-ups on how everyone’s getting along. Hide only hopes he didn’t end up sounding too personal with the latter task.

“Hmm?” Haise turns to face him, flexing his stiff neck. Ugh. Seeing him reminds Hide of his own dully aching back. Who knew sitting on the floor for hours could bring so much pain, geez.

“After we submit the documents tomorrow,” Hide pauses to conceal his hesitation by busying himself with unplugging his charger before halfheartedly winding the cord into a loose hoop. “Are you free for the rest of the day?”

Haise leans back against the edge of his desk and thinks for a moment. “I guess so. Why?”

It’s embarrassing and Hide honestly doesn’t want anyone to see him in that particular state if things come to it, but he’s unsure if he could go through his predicament by himself. He hates to admit it, but he’s scared. Returning to the facility, even after all this while, would feel like he’s forcefully tearing an old wound open and pouring salt over the broken flesh (he wouldn’t recommend doing that even if you do happen to have regenerative abilities like him). No, for once he doesn’t have the confidence to do something  alone. Haise doesn’t need to see him, right? He could just wait outside while he goes for his maintenance. Simply having his presence there would be more than enough.

Or at least that’s what he hopes.

“There’s something I need to do,” Hide says, picking up his laptop from the makeshift chair-table. The quaver manages to creep into his voice despite his efforts to not let his anxiety show. “You think you can keep me company?”

Chapter Text

Haise’s starting to get hungry.

He knows that from faintest tug in his stomach he’s beginning to feel. It’s not surprising; it’s almost time for him to have his monthly feed, anyway. And after using his kagune the other day - he figures it’d be more unsettling if his appetite doesn’t act up at all.

The sooner he quenches his hunger, the better. RC suppressants can only do so much when he’s seriously hungry, and Haise doesn’t want to risk endangering his teammates when it comes to that. He’d experienced being overpowered by starvation once or twice not long after he’d just woken up from his long slumber, and it hadn’t been pretty. Haise doesn’t want to feel that again, doesn’t want to let himself stop caring for everything else except to relieve that annoying clench in his belly and to satisfy his feral desire to eat, eat , and eat.

Maybe he should just pop over to Dr. Shiba’s place one of these days to get his food.

Haise clips the last of the laundry onto the line, exhaling a soft breath of satisfaction. He’d never complained, but waking up to a day without having to prepare breakfast for the kids and rush to work isn’t too bad. It definitely gives him more breathing space. It isn’t often that Haise gets to enjoy the tranquility of a morning like this, and he cherishes every chance he gets.

By the time he’s back indoors, Hide’s awake. Haise guesses he’s fresh out of the shower, judging from the faint scent of soap in the air. He walks in on him in the kitchen just as he’s chugging down a glass of water after popping some pills into his mouth. Haise couldn’t tell for sure, but he assumes those are the RC stimulants Hide had mentioned. 

“Good morning, Hide.” Haise makes sure to wait for Hide to swallow the last of his drink before speaking up lest he accidentally startles him and causes him to choke. Hide glances over his shoulder at the sound of his voice, and like always, he breaks into a grin.

“Morning,” he says, turning around to face his companion. Haise couldn’t help noticing the weary undertone in his voice.

“Up for breakfast?” he asks as he approaches the blond, deciding not to question about how his night had been. He’d obviously had barely enough sleep.

 “Thanks, buddy,” Hide says with a slight shake of his head. “But I think I’ll pass today.”

He raises his eyebrows when he registers Haise staring at him in silence. Or, more accurately, he’s staring at his shirt.

“You missed a button,” Haise points out, and Hide’s just about to look down and ask which one when the former reaches out, and fixes it for him. Hide completely freezes up as Haise redoes the buttons of his shirt from the third one up, his brain temporarily short-circuiting. His heartbeat turns so fast and loud he’s sure Haise would’ve heard it from such a close distance between them.

“There,” Haise breathes once he’s done. He’d even straightened Hide’s collar for good measure. “That’s better.”

Hide has to cough into his fist several times before he could actually form words again. “T-Thanks.”

“No problem.” Haise looks up to offer him a smile, and it’s only then that he notices the pink dusting across Hide’s cheeks. What he’d done belatedly dawns him, and for some reason, he feels blood rushing to his face as well. He averts his gaze and rubs the side of his neck sheepishly. “S-Sorry I did that so suddenly.”

“Nah, I understand.” Hide manages to recover at an impressive speed. At least he sounds a tad bit more relaxed now, much to Haise’s relief. “It’s your maternal instincts, right? You can’t help it.”

“Shut up,” Haise says without bite, punching the blond lightly on the arm. Hide laughs; a merry, infectious laugh. Listening to it gives Haise a funny feeling in his stomach, and he’s pretty sure it’s not from hunger. As far as he knows, hunger doesn’t come with the warm flutter he’s currently experiencing.

“What time are we leaving?” Hide asks once his mirth had faded. Haise catches himself almost feeling disappointed when he stopped. Now that’s just plain creepy - what the heck.

“We can go anytime as long as it’s not too late,” Haise replies, eyes flickering towards the clock on the wall to check anyway. He tilts his head when Hide shoves his hands into his pockets and hums thoughtfully.

“Fancy walking to the office instead of driving there today?” Hide asks after a moment, lips quirked into a crooked smile. Another one of his spontaneous decisions. Haise spends a second to reconsider their situation. It’d kind of be a waste of gas to use the car since it’s only the two of them going out today. The temperature is just right and the sunlight isn’t glaring. They aren’t in a rush. It certainly is a nice day to have a walk.

“Why not?”

xXx

Hide’s fine right up until the point where they submit their reports to Akira (who, seemed grudgingly impressed by the fact that they’d actually managed to get it done in time).

It’s when they’re on the way out of the building that Hide begins acting jittery. Haise was completely taken aback when Hide told him their destination earlier because when he said he needed to go for a checkup, Haise was expecting him to head over to the medical department; not the research facility on the other side of town. Hide had explained that it’s because the former doesn’t have the sufficient records and information about the way his body works, and though it makes sense, it still disturbs Haise.

What worries him more is Hide’s current demeanor. The blond tries hard to not make it look too bad, of course, but Haise could see how anxious he really is. He’s being unusually quiet and if Haise hadn’t stopped him at the crossing earlier he would’ve walked right in front of a speeding car. If Haise had also not known better, he’d assume that Hide’s simply afraid of doctors like how some children are because of their intimidating white coats and menacing-looking machines and selection of sharp tools. But Haise does, and he’s glad that he’d agreed to keep Hide company when he’d asked. He must be genuinely scared; to have gone as far as asking for companionship despite how independent of a person he is.

“Hide,” Haise says when he’s finally unable to keep himself quiet any longer. Hide’s condition has gotten even worse now that they’re approaching the facility. He’s so visibly tensed that he’s practically hesitating with every step that takes him closer to their destination. “If you think you can’t handle it, it’s alright to do this another day.”

He frowns when Hide stubbornly shakes his head. “I might as well get it done since we’ve already come this far,” Hide says, though Haise could sense his confidence wavering for once. “I’m okay, Haise. I’ll.. be fine in a while.”

Haise wants to argue further because there’s no way it’ll merely take ‘a while’ for him to recover, but Hide inhales a sharp breath, and forges forward with renewed speed, and the words die in Haise’s throat as he hurries to keep up. First things first, he had to be there to make sure he catches the blond in case he trips with the way he’s walking.

Haise has only been to the CCG’s research facility a few times in the past, and the place still doesn’t cease to amaze him with its sheer size. There are three main buildings at the very front around two hundred meters past the iron gates, a cluster of warehouses and production factories located behind them. Carefully staying out of the way of the vehicles that are moving around the courtyard, Haise follows Hide towards the central building.

Hide’s trot gradually slows to a trudge as he enters the foyer. Haise would like to think of that as a good sign, but looking at his companion’s expression then, it’s obviously anything but. Hide somehow manages to maintain his composure when he speaks with the guy at the reception desk. Haise stood too far back to hear most of their conversation, but he catches a few words like ‘letter’ and ‘maintenance’ and a few unfamiliar names. Hide turns around a few minutes later and motions his companion over.

“Your ID, please,” the man behind the desk says in a bored monotone once Haise stops before him. Haise doesn’t even think of asking questions. He digs for his wallet, produces his CCG ID card, and shows it to the receptionist. The latter briefly scans over his details before jotting his name down into a logbook - a surprisingly old-fashioned system considering where they’re currently at. If he recognizes Haise’s name, he isn’t letting on.

“I’ll notify Professor Hashimoto of your arrival,” the receptionist addresses Hide as he returns Haise’s card. Hide nods, motioning Haise to follow him further into the building.

It’s unnerving because despite himself, Haise had envisioned the place to look more or less like a clinic due to Hide’s circumstances. He’s fully aware that they’re not at a hospital, but he still subconsciously expects to see patients occupying plastic seats lined in the hallways and some uniformed staff bustling about with carts and clipboards and all kinds of things related to the medical field.

Unfortunately, all he sees are deserted hallways with closed doors to rooms that are doubtlessly laboratories.

“Hide,” Haise speaks up after they’d finally come to a stop before a lab in a particular corridor. Just thinking about it hurts him because even though Hide’s practically the most human among all of them in the squad, it seems like he’s being treated the least like one. It’s wrong. It’s so wrong in so many levels and it frustrates Haise that he’s unable to do a thing about it. “You okay?”

He then realizes the stupidity of his question because of course Hide isn’t okay. Hide’s leaning against the wall, looking as if he’d used up every last shred of his courage just to get himself here. He’d biting down on his lip so hard that Haise’s sure it’d start bleeding any second now. His fingernails dig deep into the fabric of his clothes as he hugs his elbows. Even with two extra layers, he’ll probably still leave some bruises on his skin with the force he’s putting into his fingers. Part of Haise’s mind refuses to process the sight of Hide in his current state. There’s no way that this fragile young man before him right now is the same person as the always optimistic, bubbly and headstrong Hide he knows. There’s just no way.

“Y-Yeah,” Hide turns slightly to face him and says with a pathetic attempt of a smile. Haise struggles to not cringe at the sight of how utterly forced it looks. “I’ll be-“

Hide stops, his sentence abruptly cut off by a gasp. His eyes widen and his hands move to clutch at his chest because it suddenly got so hard to breathe and his heart is beating too fast and he can’t seem to get enough air and no no no he can’t breathe he can’t breathe he can’t breathe-

“Hide!” Haise nearly yells as he hurries to the blond’s side once he loses strength in his legs and slides to the floor, his breath coming out in rapid, ragged pants; the rhythm too hasty and uneven to be normal. Oh, god, Haise thinks, panic threatening to cloud his thoughts. Hide’s hyperventilating! He needs help! He needs a bag, a piece of cloth - anything could cover his mouth with! But there’s no time to search. Haise has to do something now before Hide’s condition worsens and he ends up hurting himself.

“Hide, it’s alright.” Haise kneels down in front of his companion, coming to a resolution. He could only hope that he sounds way calmer than he feels. He lifts his hand, and carefully places it below Hide’s nose and over his mouth. “I’m here. You’ll be okay.”

Hide had always repeated the very same words to him, had always been there to comfort him when he needed it. Had always convinced him that all will be well. Now it’s Haise’s turn to return the favor.

“Try pressing your lips together and breath only through your nose, yeah?” Haise continues, his voice tender. His free hand moves to brush Hide’s hair back, over and over, over and over. “It’s alright. It’ll be okay. You can do this.”

Hide’s eyes eventually focus on him, and slowly, he manages to nod. Haise holds his gaze, relentlessly uttering reassurances and words of encouragement as Hide works to regain a steady breathing pattern. He could only pray and pray that it’s working, that Hide’s going to return to normal. That Hide will pull through and be his usual, cheery self again.

Hide’s attack probably only lasted a few minutes at most, but Haise feels like an eternity had passed before it’s all over. When Hide gestures for him to uncover his mouth once his fit had stopped and he’d calmed down enough, without thinking, Haise pulls him into a hug instead.

“Haise?” Hide’s voice is coarse, but his surprise is still evident. “Hey, buddy, what’s wrong?”

Haise shakes his head without a word, tightening his hold by a fraction and letting the solid form in his embrace convince him that Hide’s still here, Hide’s alright. That he still hasn’t lost him.

Hide actually has the nerve to chuckle weakly at his expense. “I really scared you there, didn’t I?”

He’d frightened him so badly that Haise almost had his own panic attack, but the boy remains silent. Hide lets out a slow breath, shifting to wrap his arms loosely around Haise’s frame. Haise could feel how badly his hands are trembling on his back.

“Sorry, Haise,” Hide whispers, leaning his forehead against his companion’s shoulder. “But do you think we can stay like this a little longer?”

And how could Haise say no? He wouldn’t let go even if Hide asked; at least not until he feels him stop shaking under his touch. Haise couldn’t stop wondering even after they’d parted once the researcher in charge of Hide’s case arrived: what exactly did he go through to end up so traumatized? What could’ve happened during his days as a test subject to make him feel terrified of simply coming back?

What did they do to you?

xXx

Hide really, really didn’t want Haise to see him break down like that.  

But no matter how he tried, he couldn’t stop the fear from crashing over him like a giant wave. Just being there, standing in the corridor that looked exactly like the one outside the lab where he got altered and tinkered with and ‘tested out’ like a some sort of contraption again and again - it brought back too many memories he’d tried so hard to forget, too many nightmares that still haunt him from time to time.

The ‘maintenance’ process itself isn’t nearly as bad as what he’d gone through during his mid-experiment days, but it unsettles Hide all the same. In fact, he’d personally asked to be sedated once he’d stepped into the lab with the researcher just so he wouldn’t submit to the urge to flee right there and then. Hide had honestly left the research facility hoping he would never have to lie on an operation table ever again.

Sadly, as you can see, Fate seems to be having a great time stepping on his wishes.

With the drug coursing through his veins and helping his heartbeat steady, Hide allows himself to retreat into his thoughts; something he’d started doing whenever he’s under the scrutiny of half a dozen gazes and an obnoxiously bright lamp after discovering that it helps with ignoring the pain. He sets his brain to autopilot mode to answer the usual questions directed as him as the scientist goes through the standard processes; taking his blood sample to check his maximum RC cell count, putting a deep cut on his arm to determine his speed of regeneration, directing him to take his shirt off so he could inspect the spot where Haise had stabbed through him, etc.  

“So that friend of yours outside,” Hashimoto speaks while he prods at Hide’s midsection, his other hand moving to fetch a scalpel from the tray behind him. Hide winces when he cuts out a tiny piece of his flesh before placing it on a Petri dish filled with some sort of solution and bringing it over to his microscope. “He’s the one who gave you that injury?”

Hide only glares warily at him, not at all inclined to reply to his wild guess. Unfortunately, his silence also serves as an answer.

“So he is the half-ghoul I’ve heard about,” the scientist muses, bending to peer through the eyepiece of his microscope. “Ahh, I wish I was there during the only time they opened him up. I would love to see how different his insides are compared to a human and-”

Hide’s anger is so sudden and intense that the sedative could only barely hold him back from jumping at the man and ripping his face off. He sits up so abruptly that his head spins. He balls his fists and ignores it.

“Are we done?” he hisses through clenched teeth, swallowing the threat that’s already at the tip of his tongue. He swears - if this bastard does as much as lay a finger on Haise, he’ll tear him to shreds with his own bare hands.

Hashimoto turns on his chair to give Hide an infuriatingly amused look. “Oh? Did I say something sensitive?” He stops to study the silently fuming Hide’s face. He then seems to come to a realization half a minute later, and he smirks complacently to himself. “So that’s it. The two of you are like that.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Hide gets off the operation table, retrieves his shirt and starts donning it despite not given the approval to do so. The dread he’d felt towards the man is quickly being replaced by nothing but pure hate. He hates his face, his profession, the way he talks. Everything. Absolutely everything.

“Of course you do.” Hashimoto shows no signs of wanting to stop him, so Hide tucks his shirt in, grabs his coat, and marches to the exit. The researcher speaks again just as Hide reaches for the doorknob. “By the way, Nagachika-kun, are you taking the tablets regularly?”

Hide decides it’s not worth mentioning that he’d completely forgotten about it a few times before. “Yeah.”

“When you’ve just consumed them,” the scientist continues, wheeling himself over to his computer at the corner of his desk to check the results of Hide’s blood scan. “Can you still eat human food?”

At that, Hide blanches against his will. It used to be fine. He used to be able to eat normal food  even after taking the hormones and having his body produce more RC cells. However, since a few months back, things have gotten strange. It’s only right after he’d eaten the pills that food wouldn’t taste quite like how they used to before. Pancakes and sandwiches weren’t remotely supposed to taste like sour milk. Cooked meat shouldn’t taste exactly like how it is raw. Vegetables should have that fresh tang to them instead of tasting like soil (yes, unfortunately, he knows how soil tastes like - it’s a long story).

Hide doesn’t have a kakuhou, which means every last RC cell he has is in his bloodstream. Like every other types of cell, RC cells constantly die to be replaced by the new ones produced by certain glands in a person’s body. As long as the effect of the hormones wear off and Hide waits long enough, his blood RC level will drop back to normal even if he doesn’t put his enhanced regeneration to use.

But to actually have his sense of taste affected just recently and not from the very start - Hide gets the feeling those tablets are beginning to do their job a little too well.

“Yes,” Hide answers warily, fighting back the sudden itch to simply open the door and get the hell out of there. “But they don’t taste like how they should. It gets back to normal after a while, though.”

He hears the scratching of the tip of a pen on a piece of paper as the researcher scribbles down his observations. “Perhaps we should increase the interval between your doses, then. Start taking it once a week instead of once every four days.”

“I’ll take note of that,” Hide says, exhaling a breath before making the mistake of glancing over his shoulder. “Anything else?”

Hashimoto studies his expression a little longer before once again breaking into that insufferable half-smile of his. “I suppose not. I’ll have my assistant call you if anything comes up. You may run along with your friend now.”

Refraining from letting out a huge sigh of relief, Hide storms out without another word.

Haise is at the exact spot where Hide had left him; sitting on the floor while hugging his knees and staring off into space with a slight furrow on his brow. He immediately turns to look as soon as he hears the door open, springing to his feet the moment Hide emerges from the lab.

“Hide,” he starts and gosh Hide feels incredibly guilty now for asking him to come with him and being the reason why he’s making that face. Haise has so many things to fret over already, and while Hide had originally planned to do his best to lessen his burdens, he’d ended up making things worse. Really, if he could strangle himself he would’ve done so.

“I’m alright, Haise,” Hide says before his companion could ask, flashing him what he hopes is an assuring smile. It certainly feels more natural than the ones earlier. “At any rate, can we talk later? Let’s get out of here first.”

Haise doesn’t argue. Hide proceeds to lead him back the way they came from, once again walking at a speed that would’ve forced Haise to jog in order to keep up with him if his normal pace hadn’t been as fast as it is. The boys leave the building in no time, and it’s a little after they’d passed the gates that Hide feels his adrenaline abandon him all at once, leaving him with the remnants of his earlier anxiety and causing the tremor to return to his hands.

Haise doesn’t question him even when he turns and keeps walking, willing his legs to stop shaking while they bring him wherever they want. All Hide knows is that every part of his body agrees on one thing; he has to go away - far, far away from this wretched facility. 

By the time he finally registers his surroundings again, Hide realizes he’s leading Haise towards a playground which existence he isn’t even aware of until that moment. Hide figures he’d probably subconsciously sought such a place out while thinking of the old, peaceful days where he’d just hang around with Kaneki in their usual haunt for hours on end after school without having to worry about anything other than how’s his best friend faring with his hateful aunt and if he himself would be able to cram a few months’ worth of notes into his brain in the night before the exams. It’ll probably do him mental state good too if he and Haise could climb onto that low slide next to the see-saw just like old times and enjoy each other’s company until they’re satisfied.

Unfortunately, like always, there’s the risk of triggering Haise’s memories.

“Why don’t we sit down and take a break?” 

Hide doesn’t realize he’d halted in his steps until Haise speaks up. He wants to tell him that nah, it’s alright they could keep walking until they find a decent café or something where they can rest while basking in the comfort of the warmth provided by heaters - but he only nods numbly, and follows Haise towards a wooden bench under the shade of a tree at the edge of the playground.

They sit together in silence for the next five minutes or so, the tip of their shoulders barely brushing against the other’s. Hide leans back, letting the cold breeze dry his sweat and calm his still-raging nerves. He takes a deep breath. Then another. And another.

“Thanks, buddy,” he says when he finally finds the will to break the quietness between them. He feels Haise’s gaze shift towards him, but he keeps his eyes focused straight ahead. “For, you know, being there for me when I was freaking out and stuff.”

He tries for a laugh - just to make the situation seem a little less serious - but the stupid quaver was back in his voice and he fails midway. He bites the inside of his cheek, inwardly kicking himself for not even being able to manage something as simple as a chuckle. So much for having lots of practice, sheesh.

“What matters is that you’re okay now,” Haise tells him softly, and for some reason, the tone he’s using causes a lump to form at the base of Hide’s throat. Hide immediately works to force the feeling down. He can’t start crying now. There’s no reason to. He’d worried Haise enough as it is.

“Hey, Haise?” he begins only after he’s sure he’s not going to burst into tears at the first word that leaves his mouth. “You think you can do me one last favor for the day?”

Haise doesn’t hesitate in the least. “Of course.”

“Can you keep talking?” Hide asks, sliding lower down his seat before reluctantly leaning his head sideways against his companion’s shoulder. To his relief, Haise doesn’t seem to mind the contact. “Anything’s fine. Just let me hear your voice.”

It’s so cheesy Hide would’ve wanted to die to save himself from the embarrassment under normal circumstances, but if there’s anything that could completely soothe him now, it’s Haise’s voice. Kaneki’s voice. If Hide closes his eyes and forgets everything else, he could imagine that nothing has changed, that none of the ghoul nonsense happened and that it’s merely the start of yet another slow afternoon with his best friend. He could convince himself that everything’s okay, that everything’s how they should be.

“Hmm,” Haise hums softly and taps his finger against his thigh as he tries to come up with something to say. He perks up when it suddenly occurs to him that he had yet to fulfill his side of the promise they made before the auction. Right. There’s still some things he’d wanted to tell Hide other than the fact that he’s a half-ghoul. “Is it okay if I talk about myself like how I’d promised you before?”

Hide shrugs. “Go on.”

There’s a short pause for Haise to gather his thoughts. “The truth is, I can’t remember anything from the first twenty years of my life.”

Hide knows this. Of course he does. He’d been the one who’d started it all in the first place. But it still stings. Part of Hide had, despite all that’d happened and all the things he’d told himself, stubbornly held on to the smallest bit of hope that maybe Haise would somehow remember him; even if it’s just a tiny recollection, just vague feeling. Anything at all. Even though he’d forced himself to believe that it’s fine even if Kaneki doesn’t remember him as long as he’s happy, he still couldn’t help it.

He couldn’t help wanting his most precious person back.

“I woke up from some sort of coma a couple of years back without a single memory,” Haise continues, fortunately oblivious towards Hide’s internal struggle. “I was told that my name is Sasaki Haise and that I was a twenty-year-old trainee investigator who got heavily injured on the head during a mission. Once I’d fully recovered, I was immediately sent to train under Arima-san for a few months. And it was during one of those months that I.. discovered what I really am.”

He pauses, putting his hands together and lacing his fingers. “I was the result of an experiment of a researcher named Kanou - who, was the one who’d implanted the kakuhou into my body. I’m not sure how long I’d lived as a half-ghoul before I lost my memories, and.. I’m honestly afraid to know. Every time I use my kagune now, I almost lose control. I hurt people. I feel like I want to hurt people, and it scares me. What if I really used to be that sort of person? What if I was the type of person who loved violence and bloodshed?”

Hide digs his nails into his palm as he listens on. No, he wants to tell him so badly, you were never like that. You were the nicest guy in the world and you were scared of doggies and you loved reading more than anything. You hated violence and bloodshed. You fought only because you had no other choice.

You never had a choice.

“It’s after the first time I used my kagune that I started hearing his voice,” Haise says after a slightly longer lapse of silence, and Hide feels him shift uneasily before he lets out a nervous laugh. “It’s okay if you don’t believe me, Hide, but there’s a voice in my head that doesn’t exactly belong to me. He frequently whispers into my ears, urging me to ‘use him’ or else I would never be able to save or protect anyone. He haunts my dreams and taunts me even when I’m awake. And sometimes,” Haise parts his hands, staring at his palms, “he demands for me to give this body back.”

At his last few words, Hide stiffens ever so slightly, his heartbeat quickening and his mind racing. Wait. He already had his suspicions based on the happenings during the auction, but does that mean-

“I think he’s probably my ‘past self’,” Haise says, confirming Hide’s guesses, adding to his inner conflict. “He’s the me before I forgot everything, and he’s getting restless after being trapped in my mind for long.”

“And you don’t want to let him out?” Hide asks, voice hushed, tentative. “Even if it means having the chance to remember your past?”

He doesn’t want to hope. He mustn’t hope. Hoping will lead to wishful thinking. Hoping will make him question his past decisions and go against everything he’d done. Hide mustn’t hope, must never hope.

But he does. 

“To be honest, I’m really frightened of him,” Haise says, and Hide feels something in him wither. It’s always like this. Kaneki has always lived fearing some aspect of himself; whether it’s his rightful hatred towards the family who took him in or his primal instincts as a half-ghoul. There’s always something about himself that he can’t accept. However, when Hide reanalyzes the tone of voice he’d just used, he notices that perhaps there had been a tinge of uncertainty in it. “He’s always itching to go wild, to not care about anything else other than harming those he sees as an enemy. All he wants is to cause destruction, not to protect anyone. And as for my memories..”

He trails off. Hide moves to sit properly again so he could face his companion. One look at Haise - with his knitted brow and pursed lips - and he could tell that he’s torn between two contradicting wants. He wants to remember, to know who he really is, yet he doesn’t. He’s afraid; of both remembering and forgetting. Of choosing between the past and the present. Of having to give one up for the other.

He’s always afraid.

“It’s okay, Haise,” Hide says gently before Haise could decide if he should resume talking. “You can stop there.”

“I’m sorry.” Haise sighs, turning to the blond to offer him an apologetic smile. “I shouldn’t be telling you all these serious and depressing stuff after such a tiring day for you.”

“No, no, it’s fine - it’s not like my timing had been any better,” Hide assures, waving his hands to emphasize his point. He then averts his gaze, and scratches the cheek sheepishly. “And actually, I’m really happy right now.” 

Haise blinks, momentarily failing to comprehend. “Why?”

“Because you trust me enough to tell me all those,” Hide says, feeling his spirits lifting, bit by bit. It’s strange, but it’s the truth. Hide’s sure Haise had just shared something so private with him that even the Quinx probably didn’t know about it. It makes Hide ridiculously proud to know he’d earned enough of Haise’s faith for him to tell him about the weight he’d been carrying all this while; his elation overpowering his earlier gloominess. When he meets Haise’s gaze, he tries for a grin. “So thanks, buddy. Thank you for sharing all that with me.”

“You’re weirding me out with your sudden politeness,” Haise says with a slight laugh, and Hide’s grin widens. “But you’re welcome, Hide. And thank you too, for telling us about yourself the other day.”

Hide shakes his head dismissively. “Well, I did promise.”

He notices a bit of sympathy creeping to Haise’s grey eyes as he continues gazing at him.

“You’ve been through a lot, haven’t you?” Haise says, quietly. Hide’s smile turns forlorn.

“Haven’t we both?”

xXx

Haise doesn’t think he has the heart to leave Hide alone after today’s incident.

At least not for tonight when he’s most likely to experience unnecessary flashbacks about whatever he’d went through in the past. Haise knows because his own nightmares work about the same way. He experiences something he dreads, and as if the real thing hadn’t been enough, he’d go through the same thing again in his dreams. Haise lost count of the nights he’d woken up drenched in cold sweat, barely stopping a scream from ripping out of his throat. The suffocating sense of solitude right after is the worst part of it. Haise doesn’t want anyone experiencing the same thing, doesn’t want anyone to discover how it is to feel so alone that it physically aches.    

Which is why he’s staring at Hide’s gaping face right now after asking if he could spend the night in his room.

“But it’ll be just the two of us in the lower floor,” Hide says as if that isn’t evident enough. “Alone.”

“That’s exactly the reason why I’ve decided to do this,” Haise tells him, not breaking eye contact. Hide opens his mouth to protest further, but when he notices that Haise had even gone as far as bringing a futon, he promptly loses his resolve.

“Hang on a sec while I clear a spot for you.” He sighs as Haise visibly brightens up, happy to have Hide complying to his unexpected request. Leaving the door wide open, the blond strides back into his room to gather the clothes he’d strewn on the floor into a bundle before proceeding to dump it all onto the unoccupied space by the foot of his closet. Haise moves to carry his futon inside once Hide had deemed he’d cleared away enough things to fit another person in his room.

Haise had never really noticed it before, but it’s much quieter downstairs compared to how it is on the upper floor (it’s a little warmer, too). It’s not that it’s any livelier upstairs even with the kids around; it’s just - the silence here feels emptier. At least when he’s upstairs, Haise knows that even though it’s quiet, the Quinx are close by and that he isn’t alone. Down here, however..

“How does it feel like to have the entire floor to yourself every night?” Haise inquires as he positions his pillows and tucks his bolster under his spread blanket. He tries not to smile when Hide shoots him an exaggerated look of horror while he switches on his nightlight.

“It’s so eerie, you have no idea,” he says, walking over to shut the main lights next. “I mean, thank god I’m too exhausted to stay awake for long before falling asleep most of the time or else I’d be in constant fear of hearing footsteps down the hallway or something.”

“You’re not a big fan of horror movies, are you?” Haise muses, not even flinching when the room is engulfed in darkness save the spot where Hide had his nightlight plugged into a socket.

“Hate ‘em,” Hide agrees, carefully making his way back to his bed without stepping on his roommate. “Most of them have such terrible effects, I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”

Having not watched many movies himself, Haise has no comments.

“That aside,” Hide adds, eliciting a soft creak from the mattress as he climbs onto it, “aren’t you afraid that I might do something to you tonight? Since it’s only the two of us here and all.”

Haise doesn’t need to see his features then to know he’s probably waggling his eyebrows at him teasingly. “The most you can do is accidentally kick me while you stumble out to use the toilet,” he states with a lopsided smile, earning himself a short chuckle from his companion.

“Got a point there,” Hide says, pulling his covers all the way up to his chest with a lot more rustling than Haise thought necessary. “Also, I might accidentally wake the house up with my unforeseen screaming later on, so I guess I’ll cover my face with a pillow just in case.”

“Please don’t do that; you’ll suffocate,” Hasie says at once, hoping Hide hadn’t seriously meant it. When he doesn’t receive a response, he suspects that he, unfortunately, did. “Hide?”

No answer still. Haise gathers his willpower to move from the warmth of his blanket before slipping out, saving himself the trouble of standing to his full height by trudging on his knees towards Hide’s bedside since the latter’s bed isn’t that tall to begin with. Just as he’d said, Hide has his second pillow pressed firmly above his face with his arms. Haise heaves a weary sigh at the sight of him, and proceeds to tug at the cushion.

Hide.” Haise tries to make his voice sterner when Hide refuses to give in. He understands how he feels; how he doesn’t want to inconvenience anyone with his own distress, but he wouldn’t exactly make things any easier if he ends up smothering himself to death. “Stop doing that.”

He isn’t sure if it’s his tone that eventually did the trick or what, but Hide’s hold finally slackens a few moments after he asked him to stop. Haise smiles to himself in triumph as he pulls the pillow away from his companion’s head. He stares back curiously when he sees Hide gazing up intently at him once he’d uncovered his face, the light reflecting off his amber eyes making them seem brighter than they usually are.

“What’s wrong..?” Haise stills when Hide reaches out to sift his fingers through his hair, the digits passing easily through his short locks. When the corners of his lips curl a little upwards, Haise thinks there it is again; the melancholy in his smile.

“It’s gotten whiter,” Hide comments, his voice a murmur. Haise couldn’t help being aware of how warm Hide’s hand is when the edge of it brushes across his ear and how soothing he found his touch to be. But then again, who is Hide without the comfort he brings?

“Has it?” Haise asks just as softly, feigning ignorance because frankly, he’d noticed it too. His hair  used to be mostly black, being white only a few inches from the tips. Even if he is under an unhealthy amount of stress, is it normal for it to lose its color so rapidly? Haise gets the feeling he wouldn’t want to know.

“Mmhmm.” Hide nods in reply to his question, retracting his hand with scarcely concealed hesitance. He exhales a long breath, and instead of talking more like Haise had expected him to, he snuggles into a cozier position, and closes his eyes. “Good night, Haise.”

“Good night,” Haise returns, willingly letting the subject drop despite how abrupt it is. He stretches over to place Hide’s spare pillow against the wall next to his bed. “May you have sweet dreams.”

He stays in his initial position a moment longer to listen to Hide’s deep, steady breathing before going back to his futon, a yawn escaping his lips. It’d been an exhausting day for the both of them, and it’s beginning to take a toll on Haise’s consciousness. The moment he tucks himself in, Haise feels his mind drifting off.

That night, Haise isn’t awoken by Hide’s screaming like the latter had worried. In fact, he has to admit he hadn’t had such restful sleep in a long, long while.

Because instead of the usual blood, voices and checkered tiles, Haise dreams of blue skies, and a radiant field of sunflowers.

Chapter Text

Of course, when there’s a first time, there’s always bound to be a second and third.

And fourth. And fifth. And so forth.

After Haise had asked to bunk in with Hide, the latter had taken it as a green light for him to request for the same. Haise finds him standing on the other side of his door the very next night, eyes bright with anticipation, teeth bared in his signature grin and arms wrapped around a pillow as if it’s a teddy bear, asking if he could share the room with him.

Hide seems to have recovered a great deal in the short span of a day. By the morning after his checkup, Hide’s usual energy was mostly - if not completely - back. His manner and humor were natural. The tension was gone from his shoulders. The lighthearted atmosphere that’s almost ever-present in conversations with him had returned. Hide is, as far as Haise can tell, pretty much back to normal.

Which is why Haise couldn’t understand the reason for his request at first.

“Rabbits die when they’re lonely, you know,” Hide tells him in all seriousness when he asked, not exactly helping him comprehend. Then again, knowing how well Hide’s able to conceal his insecurities, Haise guesses he still needs a little more comfort after his experience the day before despite the front he’d successfully put up. Also, it could get pretty suffocating; being the only person in the lower floor of a chateau at night. He couldn’t blame him for wanting a little company once in a while.

So Haise lets him in, thinking hey, his room is practically big enough for three anyway and it’s not like Hide’s invading his privacy or anything since he’s going to use a futon and all that - so it should be okay. There’s nothing wrong with sharing his room and keeping a good friend company.

He just didn’t presume Hide would ask again the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that.

Hide doesn’t keep him awake during those nights, contrary to Haise’s expectations. He doesn’t knock on his door until the very last moment - which, means he’s basically merely there to sleep and nothing more.

Haise has no problems with that. Or at least he thinks he doesn’t.

Their days off are over and they’re back to work. The Quinx squad is yet to be assigned to a case, since their Ward is relatively quiet for the time being. As such, they’re currently stuck with organizing documents all day. It’s still a light job compared to field work, so Haise finally finds the chance to start the novel Hide had bought for him. He’d stay up long after everyone else had retired to their rooms, letting the flow of the tale he holds in his hands sweep him away. Hide nags him for not giving himself enough rest the second he steps into his still brightly lit room, but it’s not like he’s going to bed any sooner, so he often sounds halfhearted.

Haise would like to say that nothing’s really changed except for the extra set of breaths in his room at night, and that’s true. Nothing’s different. At least not anything significant or obvious.

Haise’s dreams have began to change, little by little.

He now stirs from yet another one of those unusual visions, the tranquility of his bedroom shattered by the insistent ringing of his alarm clock. Mustering every last bit of his willpower, Haise turns on his back and shuts the darn thing down, a yawn escaping his lips as he does so. Slowly, he proceeds to sit up, rubbing the lingering drowsiness from his eyes with the back of his fingers.

Mmphh,” Hide’s pained groan sounds shortly from somewhere over the right edge of his bed, and Haise couldn’t agree more. His new alarm clock (his old one broke after he accidentally kicked it across his room in his sleep - it’s a long story) is way too loud and annoying and it’s nothing short of hell to part with the warmth collected underneath their blankets with the current temperature. Really, just thinking about how it’d be when winter’s upon them at its full glory makes Haise want to curl up and stay like that until spring comes.

“Sorry,” Haise says the corners of his lips lifting into a small smile of amusement at Hide’s muffled grumbling. Really, Haise isn’t in much of a position to make any comments, but even with the latter lying down, he could see that Hide’s bed head is nothing less than incredible. Blonde tufts curl and stand up in all directions, making his hair look more of a rat’s nest than it normally does.

“I’m supposed to wake up at least twenty minutes later,” Hide complains without sounding like he’s meaning it, turning to face his roommate. He cracks one eye open, and mirth immediately colors his voice. “Rad hair you’ve got there, by the way.”

“Speak for yourself,” Haise says, and Hide only replies with a sheepish “hehe”. Haise spends a minute longer to prepare mentally before pulling the covers off himself and stepping into the cold. The thing about having heater blankets and not having actual heaters installed into his room: it’s only warm under the covers. Haise catches his breath and clenches his jaw the moment his feet touch the wooden flooring and the low temperature hits him, chilling him right to the bone. He fights back the ridiculous urge to wrap his blanket around him like some sort of cape so he could make his way to the bathroom without freezing to death beforehand.

“Why don’t you rest a little longer?” Haise suggests as he strides to his closet to fetch a fresh set of clothes, hoping to muster at least a little heat by moving around. “I’ll come get you when I’m done showering.”

“Please.” Hide yawns - which, in turn, makes Haise do the same - before tugging his blanket up to his ears. Haise couldn’t help envying how utterly comfortable he looks. “Wake me up in fifteen - or wait. Feel free not to wake me up at all.”

“Dream on, Hide. Dream on,” Haise retorts wryly before belatedly realizing that that statement could very well be taken both sarcastically and literally. Well, whatever. Carefully holding his clothes as to not wrinkle them, he heads towards the door, and exits into the hallway.

He did not expect to bump right into Saiko.

Part of Haise instantly starts panicking because there’s no way she’s awake at this hour in the morning. Either something’s wrong, or Haise had accidentally set the wrong time to his new clock and he’d woken up late. Again.

“You’re up early today, Saiko-chan,” Haise forces himself to calm down and says, hoping that the situation isn’t nearly as serious as he thinks it is. He should seriously stop assuming the worst out of everything, geez. He blinks blankly when all Saiko does is stare at him. Then at the door of his room. Then back at him. Then she glances to the side, rubbing her chin thoughtfully.

“The ship is sailing finee,” Haise hears her mumble, her words making absolutely no sense to him. From the unconcealed glee in her voice, he gets the feeling he wouldn’t want to know what she means.

“Saiko-chan..?” Haise prompts anyway because she still hasn’t explained herself and he’s still worrying like he always is. It takes several seconds, but Saiko finally focuses her attention on him once more. Haise spots a sparkle of excitement in her usually apathetic eyes.

“Ah, it’s nothing. Don’t mind me,” she dismisses with a wave of her hand, doing little to reduce Haise’s subconscious curiosity. Seeing the look of question on her superior’s face, she adds; “There’s a special announcement on TV later*.”

“Special announcement?” Haise stares at her. “At a time like this?”

Saiko shrugs. “People have weird ideas.”

And you, whom we can’t get out of bed even if we burnt the house down, actually deliberately rose early just to see it, Haise doesn’t say because he’s aware that when it comes to her hobbies, Saiko sacrifices a whole lot. Now if she could only spare a tad bit of that passion for everything else - that’s probably a little too much to ask. Saiko’s priorities, unfortunately, lie mostly in her personal interests.

“Also, Maman,” Saiko speaks before Haise could walk off towards the opposite direction to the bathroom. The latter stops in his tracks and glances over his shoulder, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah?”

He’s not liking that smug smirk she’s wearing already.

“Is Hide-san officially our Papa now?”

xXx

There are quite some changes in the house in the span of the week after the end of the operation.

Saiko would like to say that the most significant of all is that her preorder for a figurine had just been added to her collection, but that’s not all. Mutsuki had had a haircut (one which suits him a lot better than what he last had, Saiko has to admit - Mucchan looks unbelievably good in shorter hair) and he often comes home later than usual these days to train with Associate Special Class Suzuya in the 13th Ward. Things between Shiragin and Uribo seem to have quieted down slightly, too. According to Saiko’s observations - she is aware of her surroundings when she’s awake, contrary to popular belief - they’re at least trying not to let each other get on their nerves so much now.

And perhaps, the most important of all - at least to Saiko herself - is the progress in her two superiors’ relationship.

Saiko has never actually shipped two people in real life (fictional characters are another story, though) but damn if that look in Hide’s eyes isn’t pure adoration every time he’s facing Sasaki, Saiko doesn’t know what is. The lad’s obviously smitten by her Maman, even the blind could see that! He’d even encouraged them to call him their dad the very day he joined the household!

And then there’s her Maman; her sweet, innocent, devastatingly oblivious Maman.

Saiko’s respect towards Hide for being so utterly patient cannot be described in words. Hide has never expressed his feelings with too much exaggeration - always just the little touches, the common words to show he cares, the encouraging smile he reserves solely for Sasaki and no one else - so Saiko couldn’t exactly blame her mother-figure for not getting the message, but still. Saiko has seen the way those two look at each other. The way their gazes soften, the way their tone of voice changes by the slightest. Saiko has read enough material to sense something going on between them.  

However, there’s more to it, Saiko’s perception’s telling her that. She still can’t be sure about her Maman’s case, but what Hide feels towards Sasaki doesn’t seem to be something as simple a plain crush. It’s.. deeper. An affection that far surpasses those shallow feelings. An affection that drives him to do all sorts of crazy things just for his sake. An affection that’s quite impossible to nurture in the painfully short span of a month.

It’s a wild guess, but maybe, just maybe.. Hide knew Sasaki before he lost his memories.

Speaking of perception, Saiko’s reminded of something she’d as good as completely forgotten as she idly reads the headline of the news program while she waits for the commercial break to begin and the announcement to be aired. There are apparently some cases of stalking going on in the other Wards; the stalkers themselves being ghouls or humans, it isn’t specified.

At any rate, it made Saiko recall the day Shirazu had taken Mutsuki and her out for burgers. It was when Mutsuki was leaving that Saiko noticed the guy loitering around the entrance of the restaurant. Not only was his appearance out of place (who even styles their hair that way?) with his fancy clothes and all that, she’d caught him hastily glancing away when Saiko directed her gaze towards his general direction while she watched Mutsuki head out. She couldn’t say he was watching them for sure, but the suspicion was there. The fact that he made a tactical retreat just before Mutsuki stepped outside did little to clear Saiko’s doubts.

So she’d secretly stayed on guard for the couple of days following that. Shirazu could take care of himself just fine and Saiko herself is barely ever out of the house, hence the girl’s worries focused mainly on the shortest and seemingly frailest boy in their group. Mucchan had already been through so much; Saiko didn’t like the idea of him going through more by being kidnapped and all that. She couldn’t do anything much herself, but she thought she could at least look out for him the best she could in her own way by telling him to be extra careful when he’s going out to train and by periodically texting him random stuff to make sure he’s alright.

And because he still is, Saiko had eventually put the entire incident out of her mind, deciding that maybe it was just her being uncharacteristically paranoid after all. Maybe she’s just over-thinking things - playing too many suspenseful mystery-solving games does that to her sometimes. Maybe that guy from the fast-food joint really was simply observing people and had been too awkward to almost meet Saiko’s gaze.

Saiko tenses up when the commercials finally start, blissfully ignoring Hide’s yelp of surprise when he sees her sprawled across the sofa wide awake an hour earlier than usual. Her heart rate speeds up because the announcement is so close she could taste it she could already feel the hype and -

A series of illustrations flash across the TV screen, accompanied by the instrumental theme song Saiko had heard so many times that she could hum it in her sleep. Bolded words pop up after the next transition, the intro first, followed by the main message that Saiko had been practically waiting all night to see.

She reads the text over once. Twice.

And then she sits up, making a very loud, very excited noise that startles the newly arrived Shirazu so much, he promptly starts cussing at her.

Not that Saiko hears what he’s saying because holy heck God is real the angels have smiled upon her and life is undeniably a beautiful, beautiful thing.

She’s so going to that event.

xXx

Haise barely understands a thing Saiko had just blabbered.

All he gets is that she needs a day off the coming Saturday and that it’s an emergency and it has something to do with a talking rumble?? He has no idea.

“I’m sorry, Saiko-chan,” he says, carefully glancing away to avoid the puppy-eye look she’s giving him. “But I don’t think I can get you that day off after the long break we’d just had.”

“But Maman!” Saiko instantly protests and gosh Haise hates doing this already. He takes a deep breath, struggling to hold on to his resolve as Saiko persistently tugs at his sleeve.

“B-Besides, we’re going to be assigned to a new case tomorrow,” he tries to reason further, keeping his gaze averted. “An appeal for a leave so soon after would be close to impossible.”

“But it’s their first event!” Saiko cries, looking very close to tears. “I can’t miss something so important!”

“I’m really sorry,” Haise tells her, and he means it. He’d let her go if he could. But he can’t. There’s just no way the higher-ups would be that lenient; with Saiko’s existing work record and all that. Haise had already been summoned a few times to explain Saiko’s lack of contribution to their investigations. He doesn’t want to find out just how far they can go before they actually get into trouble. He has to be stern for once.

To Haise’s luck, Saiko stops pestering him just as he feels his resolution about to waver. Instead, she runs straight to Hide - who, happens to be eavesdropping on their discussion while he pretends to read the daily paper.

“Papa, do something to convince Maman!” Saiko cries and hold up - Papa? Haise gapes at her because now that’s just unfair. Being acknowledged as the household father is something Hide had always wanted ever since he transferred in. Saiko’s certain to win his favor by calling him ‘papa’ and Haise’s not sure he could hold his ground against the two people he’s particularly weak against.

“Aww, come on, Haise,” Hide says, not without a ring of triumph in his voice. “What difference would a single day make? I’m sure we can fill in for her one last time.”

That’s beside the point and Hide should know it. It’s bad enough that they’re letting her slack off during work (again). The venue is quite far away and she’ll be going alone and it’ll be dangerous and knowing her, she’ll most likely exhaust her savings with the merchandise she’s presumably going to be hauling back. It wouldn’t be fair for the rest of them, either; she gets to enjoy while the everyone else has stress themselves over yet another investigation.  

“This will be the final time, alright?” Haise sighs in defeat, trying his hardest not to smile when Saiko promptly tackles him into a hug. He really, really shouldn’t spoil her as much as he does. It’d only make things difficult for both himself and everyone in the future if he overdoes it. “And you’ll go on one condition: you’ll have to keep us updated on your wellbeing the whole time you’re there.”

“I’ll do that,” Saiko promises with as much solemnity she can muster, releasing Haise from her hold. “I’ll even try to get you and Papa something!”

And at that, Haise simply laughs awkwardly because frankly, he still isn’t sure what the entire event is all about and he doubts he’d be familiar with whatever character merchandise she’s going to buy for him. Hide, on the other hand, seems pleased with the offer despite telling her not to trouble herself and to just have fun. Haise figures his elation over being called ‘papa’ would last at least another week.

But happy Hide is always better than quiet, despondent Hide, so he guesses it’s fine.

“Hey, don’t worry too much about it,” Hide tells him once Saiko had bounded back animatedly to her room. He folds his newspaper and sets it aside. “She’s a grown girl. She can take care of herself.”

“Still.’ Haise rubs his arm nervously. He’s starting to regret relenting to Saiko’s request already. “It’s Saiko-chan we’re talking about.”

The fact any further elaboration isn’t necessary is enough of a concern as it is. The main reason for Haise’s reluctance earlier suddenly occurs to the blond, and he blanches.  

“Maybe it wasn’t a such good idea to let her go after all?” he says tentatively, and Haise could only breathe another weary sigh.

“I hope not.”

xXx

Urie has no idea why he’d let himself be convinced to wake up at five in the morning.

What Yonebayashi wants to do is absolutely none of his business, so he doesn’t get why he has to be the one to accompany that slacker halfway to whatever godforsaken occasion she’s going to attend. So what if Shirazu had a shitty sense of direction and Mutsuki doesn’t look intimidating enough to scare away any potential attackers who might target Saiko? Urie deserves his sleep too. Sasaki wasn’t even trying to not sound unreasonable when he made the request.

Urie still has no idea why he’s doing this.

Saiko’s up and bustling about even earlier than him, which makes him slightly wary towards how it might affect the balance of universe later on since it’s the third time this week that this occurrence had happened. It’s the first time Urie had seen the girl wake before him for so many days consecutively, and he’d be lying if he says he’s not bothered by this at all.

Not that he’s going to admit that out loud, please.

But really, Saiko’s so unusually energetic that she’s practically vibrating and Urie has to repeatedly swallow the urge to cut her numerous times even though all he does is watch her from the corner of his eye to make sure she doesn’t wander off and render his efforts futile. Her excited fidgeting is driving him up the wall and long story short, the entire walk to the train station is mentally exhausting. For the umpteenth time that morning Urie wonders how on earth had he given even the slightest implication that he’s okay with doing this.

The platform is mostly empty when they get there, and though Urie should feel more unnerved by this than by Saiko’s sudden early risings, the absence of people helps calm him down. He could finally hear his music properly and ignore Saiko a little more; the only two things that matter to him at the moment, to be honest.

Urie tries not to sit too close to Saiko when they’re aboard the train; carefully choosing a seat that allows him to keep an eye on her as she vigorously clicks away at her phone, yet at the same time makes it look as if he has nothing to do with her. It would be tricky if the carriage gets too crowded by the time they have to get off to interchange trains, but Urie would rather struggle a bit than to let people assume that he’s affiliated with the weird girl who keeps giggling and muttering to herself on and off.  

Them being not the only ones getting off at a particular stop isn’t something unusual, but Urie notices someone who doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the crowd (which is saying a lot considering how many young girls of Saiko’s ‘species’ have joined them in their compartment since about a couple of stations ago; Urie could tell from badges, keychains, tote bags, and hushed topics of conversation which were unfortunately not hushed enough for him to not overhear even past the songs blaring into his ears). The guy exited from the coach next to them, and what caught Urie’s attention - against his will, to top it off - was, sadly, his overly dramatic way of walking.

Urie’s sure he’s not the only one who has the urge to kick him down the railway tracks with the sheer amount of space he alone is taking up in the packed platform.

There’s also that expression of utter disdain he’s wearing (Urie understands that feeling; he’s disgusted by the mass of hair and perfume and squealing around him too) that doesn’t exactly help improve his image.

But all trivial details aside, it takes Urie another second to realize a thing about this random bloke that had truly set off the warning bells in his head besides his uncanny ability to saunter around like he owned the station. 

That guy, who looked and acted like some cocky rich bastard, smelled vaguely of blood even when mingled amongst the large number of people around them.

Urie turns, abruptly remembering that he’s supposed to be an unwilling escort for at least another station. He sees people hurrying all over the place, the sounds of their footsteps reverberating throughout the busy platform.

He does not see Saiko anywhere.

Saiko is at the place around two and a half hours earlier than the opening time that was announced. 

She’d been to these conventions and events - she knows how things work. You order the tickets online with the code you got from the TV broadcast. You go to the venue a few hours earlier than what’s designated. You hope you have the patience to actually wait until the doors open. You hope you won’t develop a fear towards human contact. You hope you’re fast enough to get the merchandise you’re targeting.

In things like this, Saiko could very well be considered a veteran.

Her size is perfect for this sort of venture. Her short stature helps a lot in dodging elbows and squeezing through small spaces. However, being short unfortunately also equals having short legs, meaning she’d have to spend more energy in brisk walking than anything else.

Which isn’t a problem, really. Not only has Saiko gotten a tad bit fitter ever since being dragged into those training sessions with her Maman and the rest of the squad, Saiko has her ever-reliable willpower to count on when it comes to situations like these. She could die of exhaustion later. She has to get to work while she’s still able to.

The following hours pass by in a blur; with Saiko weaving through impossibly large crowds (and there were supposed to be a limited number of tickets available??) and practically fighting her way towards booths and snatching up the items she has her eyes on before anyone else could. The one thing that honestly surprised her, though, was how many fanworks there are despite how the game had just been recently released. She knew attractive sword boys would be popular in no time, but wow. People sure are amazing.

In around five hours from the minute the entrance was opened, Saiko stumbles out of the convention hall and moves towards a quieter, shaded area for a short breather, meaning to reorganize her loot and reassess her remaining money once she’d gotten most of the items on her priority list (she hadn’t been quick enough to get a few, darn it). She’d already used up more than half of the total amount of cash she’d brought with her, but the day has just began and really, Saiko doesn’t plan on going home until she’s down to having just the sufficient amount to get herself a train ride back.

She shoulders her numerous bags, pulling out her phone to send a quick text to Haise like she’d promised. Just as she’d slipped the device back into her pocket and gathered the courage to plunge into the sea of humans once more, out of the blue, her ears pick up the sound of footsteps.

Her senses are immediately on high alert mode. This isn’t good. There’s no one else within sight, and with every second passed Saiko’s becoming more and more certain that those footsteps; deliberately light and cautious, are creeping towards her.

Saiko does the rational thing. She breaks into a run, heading straight for the open courtyard and away from the shadows where she had carelessly hidden herself away.

She manages around five paces, then hands reach out from behind her, one covering her mouth while the other presses against her throat to keep her from screaming. Saiko instantly struggles, aiming to break free before her hands could be bound. She feels a sharp, sudden pain on the back of her neck, and her vision suddenly starts to blur, her body losing strength. Someone promptly grabs her arm firmly to break her fall to the ground.

And before the world goes dark, Saiko manages to catch a glimpse of a familiar head of violet hair, as well as a brilliant red rose.  

Chapter Text

Saiko wakes up with a snort so big she almost chokes herself.

For a minute, she could not remember what happened. All she knows is that her neck is sore and that her hands are bound behind her back and she can’t see a thing. Judging from the sounds of running engine and the constant rumble and backward pull she’s feeling, she guesses she’s currently in the backseat of someone’s car.

It all comes back to her in a flash. She was at a convention. Someone ambushed her and knocked her unconscious when she was taking a break outside the halls. Purple hair. A fancy suit. A rose.

Saiko couldn’t believe this. She had been kidnapped. Of all things that could’ve happened to her, she had to be abducted the day she’s about to bring home possibly everything she’d ever wanted until her next payday. Whisking her away is one thing, but to put her hours of painstaking efforts to waste - Saiko feels anger bubbling up the pit of her stomach despite herself. Of all days.

She holds her breath and focuses on her hearing, trying to determine how many of them are in the car with her. She hears one set of breaths, two. They’re at the front seats. Saiko’s fury abruptly dissipates, fear and anxiety rapidly taking its place. Merchandise aside, she has to get herself out of there! Who knows what they’ll do to her! Maman and the others would be worried! Saiko has to escape somehow, and get herself to safety.

She’s just pondering over how she could use her kagune to her advantage when she hears one of the passengers up front shift in their seat, and she stills immediately, hoping they hadn’t noticed her regaining consciousness.

“Ah, looks like the little rabbit is finally awake!” She hears a voice say. It’s a masculine voice, and the owner of it has a slightly foreign accent; presumably one that has gradually faded over the years when he had used the local tongue more frequently. He’s most likely the purple-haired guy who’d attacked her and kidnapped her. Saiko’s unsettled by how utterly exultant he sounds.

“You must be terrified,” the person continues even when Saiko keeps quiet, his words dripping with mock sympathy. “But fear not, little Kaninchen! You are going to be served to my master in a few hours, so be proud, for it is a great honor!”

Ghouls, Saiko realizes with increasing dread. She’d been captured by ghouls, and she’s about to be turned into one’s exquisite meal if she doesn’t hurry and save herself. But how could she escape? Where would she find her opening? What are her chances of outrunning her captors if it comes to it?

How would she be able to contact her squad now that she’d lost her phone because they’ll probably be looking for her?

“Kanae, please seat yourself properly.” It’s a lady’s voice this time; calm, mature. Saiko guesses she’s the older of the two, as well as the one driving. She hears more shuffling following the lady’s command.

“I do not understand why you would still fail to understand my euphoria, Matsumae,” the guy - Kanae - says, sounding sulky. He vaguely reminds Saiko of those types of characters she’d come across who uses big words and are overdramatic in practically everything they do and say. “The moment I caught a whiff of the blond one’s blood in the auction, I thought this is it, this is what Shuu-sama needs! It was most annoying when the Doves interfered before I could get him, but to think there are more of them like him! And the meatiest among them was so easy to obtain! We are in luck!”

“Well, this one does smell a little different from normal humans,” Matsumae admits, almost grudgingly. If Saiko guesses correctly, she’d say that Matsumae’s sort of reluctant in humoring the Kanae guy. Maybe the poor soul had been pestered into being the guy’s chauffeur against her will.

“She even tastes different,” Kanae agrees, triumphant. “Don’t bother questioning me, Matsumae. I’ve tested her blood myself!” More sounds of movements as he pauses. Saiko imagines him making ridiculously exaggerated hand gestures as he speaks. She hopes he hits Matsumae in the face and gives her the distraction she needs. “Oh, the fantastisch flavour of it! It might not be as fragrant as that of the yellow-haired one, but it’s still perfect enough for Shuu-sama!”

How and when he’d gotten a blood sample from her, Saiko has the feeling she wouldn’t want to know. At any rate, from what she gets, her abductors know that she’s a Quinx (though the guy did seem to mistaken Hide for one as well), and that’s the reason they’re planning to feed her to their ‘master’. That’s bad. That’s really, really bad. Saiko would very much prefer to stay raw and alive and not be served on a platter in the form of evenly chopped up chunks or anything of that sort.

She could barely think with her heart slamming against her chest. What would her favorite characters do? What would the babies do? Maybe she should use her kagune to free herself from her bonds now and jump out of the car the next time it comes to a stop? The ride has been continuous for a while now. If they’re moving to another ward by car, there’s sure to be a toll station at some point. Saiko could use that chance.

However, there’s also a possibility that she’ll get run down by other cars if she blindly rushes out. She’ll risk getting the people within her proximity injured, should a huge fight break out. And since both her captors are ghouls and they’re probably already wary of her with her being a Quinx and a ghoul investigator, her chances of touching the door alone is low. There will be a struggle, and she will get hurt in the process, whether she likes it or not.

But wounds are something she can heal from. She can’t heal once she’s inside some ghoul’s belly.

 Saiko concentrates on her lower back, trying her hardest not to wince at the unfamiliar prick when her kakuhou pierces her skin. She hasn’t used her kagune much since she got it, but she still finds it surprisingly easy to control them. The single appendage she’d activated had barely formed when she feels a rush of air against her face, followed by what she presumes is something sharp and pointy stopping a centimeter from piercing through her head. 

“We can’t be having any misbehavior now,” Kanae tells her disapprovingly, not a shred of his malice concealed. Saiko makes an involuntary gulp. How did he even notice? “We wouldn’t want you dying before we reach the manor, would we? I believe Shuu-sama would find your flesh tasting the best when it’s still frisch.”

Saiko obediently retracts her kagune, only daring to resume breathing when she senses the sharp whatever move away. Looks like she wouldn’t have any opportunities on the road, considering how tightly she’s being monitored in the car itself. That leaves her one other option left which she could think of.

She’ll have to try again when they’re at the manor.

xXx

Saiko’s not back yet.

It’s getting late. She’s late. Haise glances nervously at the clock, twisting the skin on his fingers to fight back the urge to stand up and start pacing around the house. Saiko had assured that she’ll be back around dinnertime because the event ends before then. The dishes had already been washed and the leftovers have been wrapped up an hour ago, and she’s still not home.

Not to mention she hasn’t answered his calls and messages since a few hours ago. Haise had originally assumed that perhaps she’d eventually gotten too distracted to remember her promise and the place’s too noisy for her to hear her ringtone when he called. It obviously doesn’t seem that way now.

Haise has a bad feeling about this.

“The event’s just probably lasting longer than she’d expected,” Hide speaks up when he sees Haise’s look of worry, though he sounds uncertain himself. It’s getting dark early now that winter’s starting, and though Japan’s crime rate is relatively low, it’s still dangerous for a girl of Saiko’s size and age to be out alone. Plus, there are ghouls to worry about if she somehow strays away from crowded places and make herself an easy target.

“I’ll try calling her again,” Haise says, frowning as he dials the number for the umpteenth time that evening. His finds himself praying for the beeping of the line to be cut off by Saiko’s drawling voice, for her to utter a hasty apology for being sidetracked and tell him that she’s on the way back now and not to worry because she’s got their souvenirs and all that. His heart races while he waits, and with every beep he loses more and more hope. Something is definitely wrong.

“Maybe her phone battery just died?” Shirazu muses when Haise hangs up the call after being directed the Saiko’s voice mail, shifting anxiously in his seat. Haise appreciates his attempts for optimism, but he remembers reminding Saiko to bring a powerbank with her, and he tells him that. With her consistent phone usage, it’s highly improbable that Saiko hadn’t the need to use it even once the entire day.

“We can go out and try looking for her,” Mutsuki suggests; his eyebrows knitted, his shoulders tensed. “The night’s still young, after all.”

“It’ll only end up a wild goose chase if we can’t pinpoint her location,” Haise sighs wearily, running his fingers through his hair. “We don’t even know if she’s still at the venue or somewhere else or if she’s already on her way back.”

Or worse, she could be in neither of the two situations. Haise refrains from voicing that part for fear that it might be true. Then again, he doesn’t need to because he’s sure everyone shares the exact same concern.

“So we’ve got no choice but to wait.” Shirazu crosses his arms and slumps back against the sofa. Haise nods, not at all happier with the decision they’re forced to make. He chews on his lower lip, racking his brain to come up with anything at all that could somehow help him track down his subordinate whom he’d suddenly lost all contact with. Saiko couldn’t have wandered off alone and gotten herself lost in a place without reception, could she? She couldn’t have been trying to contact them all this while without having enough change for a public phone, could she? She isn’t shy enough to not go to the police box or something to get help, is she?

Because despite how she acts and looks, Haise knows Saiko is actually quite streetwise when it matters.

“I’ll go wait for her at the station,” Hide volunteers, evidently too restless to simply sit around and do nothing. Haise doesn’t stop him, only nodding wordlessly once more as he watches the blond stand up and head to his room to change into a set of warmer and more decent-looking clothes. Shirazu offers to go with him when he reappears a few minutes later in a proper pair of jeans and a jacket zipped up to his chin over his shirt, but Hide shakes his head, telling him that it might end up being a long, boring wait and Shirazu probably wouldn’t be able to stand it without developing the urge to randomly start yelling at people.  

“Besides, I’ve got this,” Hide adds, tapping the brightly colored headphones hanging around his neck. “I’ll be fine by myself.”

 “Give us a ring if anything happens,” Haise tells him while the latter ties his shoelaces, wishing he could go out as well and search despite what he’d said earlier. Hide hums in acknowledgement, getting on his feet once he had his sneakers securely on.

“And call me if she happens to return without me,” he says, breaking into a crooked grin. “I don’t  think it’ll be comfortable spending my entire night at the station.”

“If you’re silly enough to stay there even after the last train, you deserve it,” Haise says with a small smile, once again admiring the way Hide’s always able to divert his attention from his worries even by the slightest bit without seeming like he needs much effort for it. He’s quick to sober up, however; unease plaguing his mind the second his moment of distraction wears off.

The fact that even Hide doesn’t try to assure him that it’ll be alright this time makes everything all the more unnerving.

“Be careful on the way there,” Haise says just before Hide could leave, earning himself an odd look from his companion.

“The station’s only a ten-minute walk from here, Haise,” Hide says, his tone slightly incredulous. His expression then softens in understanding, and he continues; “But thanks. I will.”

And with a tug on the handle, he opens the door and slips into the dark night.

xXx

Hide’s immediate regret is for not wearing an extra shirt.

His gradual regret, on the other hand, is for letting himself be swayed simply by being called ‘papa’. Like, what the heck. He’s pathetic. He should’ve backed Haise up in the first place; should’ve not let Saiko go even if it meant dampening her spirits and being hated. Or, to the very least, he shouldn’t have let her gone alone.

Hide shoves his hands deeper into his pockets, silently cursing the weather for being so damned cold so early into the season. He exhales in an attempt to stop the chattering of his teeth, his breath coming out in puffs of white mist. With the cold seeping through his layers of clothes and threatening to freeze him from the inside out, he quickens his steps, keen to spend even a mere minute less in the low temperature.

Hide arrives at the nearest underground train station no longer feeling his nose, but since he’s still able to move around with considerable fluidity, he figures he’ll live. He rubs his knuckles against the tip of his nose as he makes his way towards the ticketing gates where Saiko’s supposed to go through when she comes back. He’d normally be reprimanded by the staff for loitering around in such a busy place, but it’s a quiet night and he’s not exactly in anyone’s way standing to one side, so he’s left alone.

Hide sets his mind to work as soon as he’d fitted his headphones over his ears and started up his music. Negativity isn’t his thing, but facts are facts. The way things are playing out, all they’re doing is merely giving themselves a peace of mind over a brief period of denial before accepting the truth. Hide doesn’t need to read and watch a quarter of the crime series he’d come across all his life to know where this is heading.

There’s a high probability that Saiko isn’t coming home tonight.

She might not even come home tomorrow, for that matter. Or the day after that.

Unless they do something about it before it permanently stays that way.

Now on to the main question: who would want anything to do with Saiko and why? Humans? Ghouls? Is she just unfortunate enough to be caught up in something random or is it all part of a bigger plan? There are too many questions, and Hide has the answer to a whooping zero of them. They have no leads at all. The venue where the event she’s attending is huge and all physical evidence would most likely be gone by the time they get there - especially if her abduction (provided it really is an abduction and not just Hide over-thinking things again) happened in the outdoor courtyard and not inside the halls. The footages from the security camera would also be of little help considering how crowded the event probably was (fangirls are scary), but it’s all they’ve got for now. He could also check the records of the nearest police booth to see if there had been any reports about suspicious characters.

Hide bites back the urge to breathe a sigh at the sheer amount of work he’d potentially be doing for the next couple of days. He could already feel his eyes burning and fingers cramping. For Saiko-chan’s sake, he tells himself firmly to stop his resolve from crumbling. For Saiko-chan’s sake.

He hopes he still remembers how to hack into easy databases. 

xXx

Saiko’s second attempt to escape fails as well.

The reasons for it are simple: the hand circled around her arm has a steel grip which she isn’t at all confident of breaking away from, she’s still blindfolded, and she has exactly no idea where she is and if she’ll be able to put enough distance between the ghouls and herself to flee properly.

The best she can do now is to hope that ‘Shuu-sama’ isn’t hungry just yet.

“Ow!” Saiko yelps when she feels something slicing across her right palm the moment she’s halted in her steps. The cut must be pretty deep because it smarts so badly that her entire hand turns numb for a few seconds. She fights back a cringe as she feels her blood, warm and sticky, leak out of the cut and flow down the length of her fingers.

“Kanae.” Matsumae sounds reprimanding. “You’re getting carried away.”

Saiko would’ve nodded and thanked her if she thought her voice would work.

“I’m simply preparing the appetizer to Shuu-sama’s feast, Matsumae,” Kanae says demurely, tugging Saiko’s bound hands further from her back, position the bleeding one above what Saiko guesses is a container to collect the blood dripping off her fingers. “Rest assured; this one heals fast. She’ll be good as new by the time we must prepare for the main course.”

And just as he’d finished speaking, Saiko’s wound must’ve closed up completely because he makes an impatient noise from the back of his throat, and shoves the girl’s hands back to their initial position.

“Too fast, I might add,” Kanae grouses before the annoyance abruptly disappears from his tone, a delighted lilt taking its place. “But this will also mean that it’ll take longer to exhaust her meat, and Shuu-sama will have more to enjoy. Glorreich!

Saiko’s not even doubtful anymore. This guy’s crazy! He can’t possibly be planning to take advantage of her regeneration abilities to make her some sort of buffet meal or something! It’ll hurt! She’s not immortal - her body has limits! She’ll die if it goes on for too long!

She has to get out of here. There’s still time. They’re only serving the master the starting dish for now - as much as at the thought of her blood being called that disgusts her. Even if the guy didn’t fancy the taste of her, Saiko figures she’d be killed to keep her quiet, so her chances lay in the span of time between his meals. She’d have to find a way to get herself out of this mess by then.

She stops walking once more after a few minutes, feeling a pair of hands grab her shoulders and veer her sharply to the left. Saiko’s then given a rough push from behind, and she promptly loses her balance. She stumbles to a kneel, her knees hitting the cold, marble floor hard.

And before she has time to recover, she hears the door heavily slam shut behind her.

xXx

It’s nearly four in the morning, and Haise still lies wide awake on his bed.

Hide had came back alone after the last train made its stop at the station, not bearing any news about their missing squad member. Half the reason Haise had refused to sleep was because part of him was still betting on Saiko returning in the middle of the night, saying her sorries for being so impossibly late and worrying everyone sick while she struggles just to keep herself upright. He was seriously thinking of slapping her upside the head if she really pulls that on him.

Meanwhile, the other half was busy trying to push back the guilt that’s threatening to overwhelm him and make him feel miserable again. Some things just happen, Hide had told him once. And Haise desperately wants to think he’s right. Haise couldn’t have predicted about what could’ve happened to Saiko. He wouldn’t have known she’d be caught up in such a predicament. He would never have let her go if he’d known. It’s not his fault.

Self-blame will not change a thing, Haise’s aware of that. Being mopey won’t make their situation any better. Haise takes a deep breath, and sits up, too distracted to bother about the cold that assaults his upper body at once. He slips his legs out from under the covers and swings them over the edge of his bed, getting to his feet and heading out of his room.

Haise knows Hide’s pulling yet another all-nighter; the blond had said so himself. Hacking into databases wouldn’t be easy, but Hide promised he’ll be able to get most - if not all - of it done by sunrise. If it means obtaining any leads about what had happened to Saiko, Haise isn’t going to stop him, even if what he’s doing isn’t entirely legal.

Of course, the easier way to find her would be to call the police and start a major manhunt, but Haise and his squad had come to a collective agreement that they shouldn’t do so yet. It’s foolish, it’s immature, and it’s prideful of them; thinking that they, a bunch of youngsters just barely past their teenage years, would be able to handle something as serious as this themselves. But it’s their decision. They still didn’t know what Saiko’s abductors’ objectives. They still didn’t know if they’re ghouls or humans. They might be slightly easier to deal with if they happen to be the latter, but if they turn out to be ghouls, the human officers assigned to pursue them would only be sent to their death beds. Plus, Haise would be made to take responsibility as the squad mentor anyway once he reports this, so he might as well have a head start. And no harm sharing their findings with those involved if it comes to that.

Haise makes a quick detour to the kitchen to brew some coffee before trudging to the direction of Hide’s bedroom, carefully holding the two mugs steady to avoid spilling the beverage. It belatedly occurs to him then that he’ll have no way to knock with both his hands occupied, but fortunately for him, the door’s ajar when he reaches there.

“Hide, it’s me,” Haise whispers, easing the door open with his elbow. He squints when the light from the blond’s brightly lit room meets his dark-accustomed eyes.

Hide must be exhausted, despite all his talk about how he’s able to stay awake an entire night when he needs to. Haise knows this because Hide’s constantly afraid of jumpscares and he’d failed to even bat an eye at his sudden appearance.

“Haise? Is it morning already?” he asks, not even sounding the least surprised. He mumbles his thanks when Haise places a mug of coffee on his desk. Haise takes a sip of his own drink before answering.

“It was technically already morning by the time you returned from the station,” he says, hoping he doesn’t sound as anxious as he feels. He returns Hide’s lopsided smile when he sees it. He then averts his gaze towards the paused scene of a train station on Hide’s laptop screen. “It’s a five past four. You found anything useful?”

“Not yet. I just got into the databases a little more than an hour ago.” Hide yawns, tugging his blanket tighter around himself. “The police records won’t be fully updated until at least tomorrow afternoon, apparently, so I can’t do anything much about that. And finding one tiny person in a sea of thousands from a dozen different cameras in different angles isn’t exactly an easy feat.” He laughs halfheartedly and rubs his eyes. “I think I might need to get myself a pair of glasses when this is over. The footages from the train stations are easier because I’ll only need to search within an estimated time frame for every station, but those from the convention halls are the ones that are seriously going to kill me.”

“We can take turns looking,” Haise offers because he’s not exactly okay with Hide doing all the work himself. He might not know much about hacking, but even he is capable of using his eyes.

“I’ll take short breaks in between, so don’t worry about it,” Hide assures, tipping his mug and taking a large gulp of caffeine. “You haven’t slept at all too, right? Go rest up; I’ll handle it.”

“And you’re the one who once told me not to shoulder everything myself,” Haise says, frowning at his companion in disapproval. Caught contradicting his very own words, Hide blanches, only able to scratch his cheek and let out a sheepish laugh in response. “Let me help, Hide. It’s not like I’ll be able to fall asleep, anyway.”

Haise stares stubbornly at him until he sees him visibly give in.

“You’ll want to go fetch your blanket,” Hide finally says, and Haise lets out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. “It’ll only be getting colder, and mine isn’t exactly big enough for us to share.”

“Hide, come here and look at this.”

Hide snaps awake from his doze (wait, when did his eyelids even start closing?) at the sound of Haise’s voice, standing up from his spot on the floor in an instant. He wipes the drool from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand as he makes his way to his companion, hoping the latter hadn’t seen it. That would be embarrassing.

“Yeah?” he asks, studying the scene which Haise had paused at. “Isn’t this the station where Urie said he’d lost Saiko?”

Haise nods affirmatively, and Hide’s gaze proceeds to settle on the place Haise’s indicating with his finger. “It’s just.. this guy here; the one with the purple hair. He’d gotten down at the same platform and exited from the carriage next to the one which the kids were using.”

“You recognize him?” Hide inquires further, motioning for Haise to hand him the mouse so he could lean over and do something to magnify the person in question’s face. He doesn’t ask how he’d managed to find Saiko and Urie among so many people when Hide himself caught his own eyes consistently glazing over every few minutes despite his efforts. A mother’s instincts are amazing, and that’s that. Haise studies the slightly pixilated features, slowly breaking into a frown.

“I don’t have any names, but,” he retrieves the mouse and maximizes another window, “he’s also there in the courtyard around the convention halls.”

“You think he has something to do with Saiko-chan’s disappearance?” Hide says, watching Haise skip to a specific point in the playback. “He does kind of stand out even among all the cosplayers there, for some reason.”

“It’s just a gut feeling of mine,” Haise admits, eyebrows still slightly knitted. “I tried to figure out his path based on the direction of his feet and follow his tracks with the cameras, but then this happened.”

Hide’s eyes follow Haise’s cursor, his brain struggling to link the images from different angles and visualizing them into a single picture. He spots Saiko in one of the many frames displayed, carrying several bulky bags and hustling towards an area that’s quite hidden from view. The purple-haired guy appears before the same camera half a minute later, also going towards the direction where Saiko was headed.

Hide averts his gaze to look at the next footage, and starts when he sees that it’s showing a different spot entirely. He quickly goes over the other frames, trying to find one that’s somehow or another connected to the area beyond the range of the last one that showed Saiko and the suspicious stranger.

“She actually walked into a blind spot,” Hide marvels a minute later, raking his fingers through his hair in a mixture of amusement and incredulity. He knows the venue is huge and the areas are too open to have too many security cameras installed, but still. He could not believe the girl. Why the heck would she go to such a secluded location by herself in the first place? She should know better!

“I got her last text a little later after she went there,” Haise observes, noting the time displayed at the upper corner of the recording. He then clicks on the indicator of the playback and drags it back. “And as far as I can tell, barely anyone seemed to have gone there earlier, so there’s a chance that she’d been the only one there at that particular moment.”

“Which makes Purpleman our prime suspect,” Hide concludes. He makes a face. “I can’t even tell if that guy’s deliberately being obvious or he’s just plain careless.”

“Maybe he just didn’t care,” Haise says, still glaring intently at the magnified image of Purpleman. Hide couldn’t quite decide whether he looks like he wants to stab the guy in the face or he’s frustrated at himself for something. Probably a little bit of both. Hide hopes he doesn’t plan on punching a hole onto his laptop monitor anytime soon.

“We should ask Kuki if he noticed the guy or anything weird about him when he’s at the platform,” Hide suggests when it occurs to him. “I mean, he’s a sharp one. He could’ve noticed something out of place.”

“I’ll ask him later,” Haise says, failing to stifle a yawn. Hide sees this, and cracks a tiny smile.

“There’s still some time before your morning schedule starts,” he says, meeting Haise’s gaze when he faces him. “Go ahead and take a short nap or something. I’ll save the stuff down and finish up from here. You can even use my bed, if you don’t think you’ll be able to make it upstairs without fainting.”

He’d meant the last part as a joke, so he’s quite taken aback when Haise proceeds to thank him and stumble his way to the bed, eyes closing the moment he hits the mattress. Then again, Hide guesses his built-up adrenaline and anxiety towards Saiko’s condition and their lack of leads must’ve been the only things that had kept him awake all night. Now that they’ve found something - even if that something turns out to have no relation whatsoever to their situation - Haise must’ve been overcome with both relief and exhaustion. Hide makes a spontaneous decision to take over in making breakfast again.

He leans back against the back of his chair, exhaling a tired breath of his own before falling silent, listening to Haise’s quiet snores. He doesn’t seem to be having another one of his bad dreams this time, and that’s great, Hide thinks as he turns his head to glance at his companion. With everything going on, a nightmare would only exhaust his mental health further. Haise deserves a break, not matter how short it is. His ‘inner self’ should know that better than anyone.

Hide approaches Haise’s sleeping figure after folding up his own blanket and setting it aside, noting how the latter had shifted from lying on his belly to curled up on his side. Hide sits down gingerly on the edge of the mattress, and very gently, he reaches to brush the back of his fingers against the other boy’s cheek, taking in the sight of the almost-permanent shadows under his eyes, his slightly downturned mouth, the furrow on his brow. And he sighs, feeling another of those slight stings in his chest.

He’s still constantly pushing himself too hard, huh?

xXx

Urie recognizes ‘Purpleman’ - as his two superiors have casually dubbed the stranger whom they had their suspicions on - when he was shown an image of him on Hide’s laptop halfway through breakfast.

He admits to have detected a subtle scent of blood from the guy when they ask for details, gritting his teeth and bracing himself to be immediately chastised for not warning Saiko or even speaking up about it earlier during the discussion with the rest of the squad. Hey, it’s not like he knew the sod was after Saiko of all people, and it’s not his fault that he’d been unwillingly befuddled by the sheer number of people around him at that moment. Anyone would get a little disoriented when they’re suddenly surrounded by a dense crowd (that’s moving, no less) - or at least any loner like Urie would.

To his bemusement, his superiors do not even look nor sound the slightest bit miffed.

“Did you notice any further details about him? Something distinctive like a gait, maybe?” Haise asks, his eyes never once breaking contact with Urie’s. Perhaps he feels sorry despite himself, seeing how exhausted the older boy looks (he’s not going to acknowledge that, don’t worry); and perhaps he also harbored a slight guilt for keeping his silence (when did his conscience start acting up again, he doesn’t know) - but Urie’s obligated to answer, and he begins searching his memory for any recollections of their suspect.

“He walks in annoyingly wide and deliberate strides,” Urie starts, tapping his fingers against the surface of the table in thought. Leaving out the particulars his superiors had discovered themselves from the security footages, he realizes there’s actually nothing much left for him to say. “And there’s a red rose in his breast pocket, if I’m not mistaken. That’s all I remember.“

Roses. A thought nags at his mind. He hadn’t taken notice of any roses recently, he’s certain of that, but the mention of the plant reminds him of something; something he presently can’t quite put his finger on..

“Wait,” Hide speaks, sitting a little straighter. “You said you could smell blood on him even with all those people around?”

“Positive,” Urie replies with a curt nod. “He’s most probably a ghoul.”

He easily comes to this conclusion because the scent of blood had been faint, even for Urie with his enhanced sense of smell. If he could barely detect it, it’s likely that normal humans wouldn’t notice a thing at all - which means the purple-haired stranger probably wasn’t wearing a blood-soaked shirt or the like from a fresh murder hidden under his visible layers of clothes (stale blood, on the other hand, wouldn’t smell strong enough to stand out among a crowd). Yet, he still carries that metallic scent around him, and Urie knows how it’ll need to take a lifetime of bloodbaths to make that stench permanently cling to one’s body.

And who would engage in a lifetime of bloodbaths other than ghouls?

His superiors seem to get the same idea, and they exchange a look among themselves, both of them equally pale.

“Akira-san isn’t going to be happy when we tell her,” Sasaki says in small voice at last, and for once, Urie couldn’t help agreeing with him.

Chapter Text

The moment she’s left alone, Saiko activates her kagune to free her hands.

She then reaches to rip the blindfold away from her eyes, her heart beating so fast that she could hardly breathe. She has to act swiftly, or else she won’t stand a chance. She squints to take in her surroundings, her eyes adjusting to the darkness a little too slowly for her liking. When she is able to see the most she could in the lack of lighting, she half wonders if she’d somehow accidentally offended someone enough recently; to be cursed with so much bad luck that day.

She’s in a room about the size of a small storeroom, with just enough space for her to walk two steps to the front and sides before reaching one end from the other. There are no lights, nor are there any windows, hence Saiko’s measly illumination comes solely from the light seeping in from the crack under the door. Since there’s a ventilator on the ceiling, Saiko figures she wouldn’t need to worry about suffocating to death just yet.

 Saiko stares at the wooden door; her only exit. She doesn’t think she could break through solid walls with her level of strength (what’s worse; she’s hungry - she should’ve listened to her Maman and eaten something while she could), but perhaps she could do something about the door. The wood itself might be sturdy, judging from the sound of it when it closed, but it should still be more brittle than concrete. Saiko lets the rest of her kagune form and adjusts her stance, preparing to bust her way out of the place. She takes a deep breath, and listens.

The sounds of footsteps seem too faint to be within her proximity; though the sheer number of it makes her nervous. There are many servants in this place, as expected of a guy rich enough to live in a manor and have his people go around catching his meals for him. Saiko suddenly isn’t quite sure if she’ll even be able to make it as far as the front yard in one piece; with her being so miserably outnumbered.

The noise coming from a particularly loud conversation catches Saiko’s attention before she could decide on what she should do, and she starts, straining to listen because she recognizes one of the voices.

“.. is unreasonable to do that, Shuu-sama!” Saiko hears Kanae exclaim from a room maybe two or three floors directly above Saiko’s location. Really, the guy should really chill the heck out. “It is unimaginable for you, an esteemed member of the Tsukiyama family, to even think about wanting to converse with your food!”

“Please, mon cher Kanae.” The second voice sounds way softer - a lot weaker, even. Saiko finds herself couldn’t quite believing her ears. This is the ‘Shuu-sama’ she’s been hearing about? This person who sounds so feeble and demotivated and so, so tired? “It has nothing to do with my family. I want to see the owner of this.. this délicieux-”

He doesn’t finish his sentence, but Saiko isn’t slow enough to not guess that he’s referring to her blood. She stands absolutely still, trying to listen further despite her race against time to get out of there.

“With all due respect, you cannot, Shuu-sama,” Kanae insists, obstinate. “I cannot allow you to stoop so low to the point of having pointless talks with your meals. It is simply unacceptable! Blödsinn!

“Stop considering them as my meal, then,” ‘Shuu-sama’ says, with a little more force in his words this time. “Take them to me as a guest instead, I don’t care. And until I get to meet them, do not expect me to eat another bite of food.”

“But Shuu-sama, you’ve already-“

From that point on, the conversation turns one-sided; with Kanae desperately trying to convince his master out of his decision but to no avail. It’s only after she hears him finally giving up and excusing himself that Saiko remembers about her own escape. But wait - Kanae might be coming for her this very instant. Her element of surprise - the one thing that could possibly determine the success rate of her attempt - would be reduced significantly. Saiko doesn’t know how long she’ll take to break down the door and find an escape route, either. Things are not looking too good for her.

Saiko recalls the argument she’d just overheard, struggling to analyze the meaning behind those words. ‘Shuu-sama’ had gone as far as telling his servant to treat her as a guest and not food if that’s what it takes for him to meet her. Something doesn’t seem right, and Saiko can’t pinpoint what exactly that something is. Why is he so keen on seeing her? What is he expecting? At any rate, it seems that if she’s able to entertain ‘Shuu-sama’ well enough, she might just be able to hold out until she either finds an opening to flee or a way to contact her squad.

Saiko hears footsteps approaching her direction, and she hurriedly retracts her kagune, wary of it being someone coming to check on her. Showing aggression will only make things more difficult for herself in this sort of situation; Saiko had learnt that lesson from all the action games she’d played. She has to act powerless (which isn’t far from the truth, honestly) so they’d let their guard down around her and she’d stand a chance.

She backs against the wall, listening to the rhythmic thud of shoes against carpet that’s coming closer and closer. She holds her breath when she hears it abruptly stop, bracing herself for the door to be flung open and a hand to reach in and drag her out to be transformed into ghoul delicacy.

It’s strange because that doesn’t happen and that leaves her even more unsettled than it would have if it did. Saiko could hardly hear anything past her own erratic heartbeat as she waits and waits for what she thought was the inevitable. Would Kanae really defy his master like that? His beloved master whom he’s willing to risk his life capturing a CCG investigator for? His beloved master whom he’d kept raving on and on about the entire journey to the manor?

The seconds slip by, and Saiko eventually hears the owner of those footsteps leave without as much as a knock on the door. Every last bit of courage seems to abandon her all at once, and she slumps to the floor, suddenly feeling as if she could throw up had her stomach been less empty than it is. She’s scared. She hadn’t felt it earlier because of all the excitement and unexpected bravado, but she’s terrified. It’s not like those scenes in fiction. One wrong move, and she really will die in the hands of her captors. Game over. No half-minute revivals. No restart and redo.

Saiko brings her knees close to her chest and hugs them tight, trying hard to swallow the lump in her throat that’s making it so difficult for her to breathe. Could she really get through this alive after all? Will she really be alright alone? Will Maman and the rest rescue her in time? She doesn’t know, and that doesn’t help calm her down at all. Saiko wills herself to diverge from her current train of thoughts. Her babies have been through things more hellish than this. If they can brave through it, so can she.

Saiko figures she must’ve been more exhausted than she realized because her eyelids start drooping the moment her heartbeat begins to steady. In retrospect, she did wake up a lot earlier than usual recently and she’d been up and about practically the entire day; the fatigue must’ve been building up. Saiko’s sure falling asleep isn’t exactly the best thing to do in her situation, but her body seems to disagree with her mind, and she’s out cold before she knows it. 

It must’ve been morning by the time the door’s flung open for real (so much time seem to have passed as Saiko slept on), revealing a sullen Kanae staring down at her with a look of utter revulsion. For once, Saiko snaps awake the minute her ears register the noise.

 “Get up, Kaninchen,” Kanae orders in a cold voice, and Saiko, having no other choice, obeys. “My master wishes to see you.”

xXx

“Rank 3 Yonebayashi has gone missing, and we suspect that it’s the work of a ghoul.”

Haise wills his gaze to remain firm as Akira gapes at him in incredulity.

“She what?” the lady demands, sounding and looking so furious that Haise nearly flinches. Akira then abruptly regains her composure, and with a weary exhale, she urges her subordinate to elaborate.

Haise knows it’s childish of him to feel so, but owning up was difficult. He told Akira how he’d allowed Saiko to take a break from her job to attend one of her conventions, and how she’d been targeted by a ghoul with unknown intentions while she was there. He told her about how they’d discovered that her kidnapper was a ghoul - rather, he hesitated halfway because he’s afraid of getting Hide into (more) trouble and had to be succeeded by the blond himself.

“I am also partly to blame for this,” Hide says with the unwavering confidence Haise does not have when he’d finished explaining. “Therefore, I request to share the responsibility with Rank 1 Sasaki to retrieve Rank 3 Yonebayashi.”

“And what do you plan to do, if I may ask?” Akira kneads her fingers against her temples and asks. Haise feels bad for giving her another headache already.

“I propose to have Rank 1 Sasaki and myself temporarily assigned to a separate investigation,” Hide replies without even missing a beat. Haise watches as Akira studies his blond companion shrewdly, as though trying to figure out if he had any ulterior motives or the like. His breath unwillingly catches in his throat when the lady turns her gaze to him.

“Is this a collective decision after much consideration, Haise,” she tilts her head slightly in question, “or is this simply another one of Nagachika’s spontaneous schemes?”

Haise purses his lips, spending a second to reorganize his thoughts before answering. “I believe the remaining members of the Shirazu Squad are capable enough to deal with their current case even without us. We do not know about Saiko-chan’s condition, so we can only hope that she’s holding out on her own and act as quickly as we can.”

“And you boys expect me to nonchalantly excuse you from your current duties to attempt making up for your foolishness,” Akira deadpans and yes, Haise wants to answer because Saiko is still one of the CCG’s valued test subjects - unwilling as he is to admit - and there’s no way they’d let her slip from their grasps so easily. Haise holds his superior’s gaze and hopes he’s able to get his resolution across. Akira has to let them do this. She has to. She can’t just leave Saiko for dead!

“Can the two of you handle this by yourselves?” Akira finally asks, and Haise thinks he could hug her right there and then. He manages to refrain from doing that, however, instead choosing to clear his throat before replying.

“It will be a stealth mission, so yes - just the two of us should be enough,” he says, and Hide nods in assent.

“You’ve got three days to get Yonebayashi back,” Akira tells them after a thoughtful pause, confirming her consent to their proposal. “If you’re unable to do that by then, I’m afraid we’ll be forced to give up on her after all.”

“Three days is more than enough,” Hide assures, earning himself a sidelong glance from his superior. He grins widely when he spots her looking at him, promptly losing all professionalism he had earlier. “And thanks, Akira-san. We’ll make it up to you somehow, I promise.”

“You can do that by treating me to a meal worth two months of your paychecks,” Akira says, her expression so straight that Haise honestly can’t tell if she’s joking or not. Then again, with all the trouble they’d made her go through recently, two months worth of salary is a small compensation.

“We’ll see what we can find,” Haise promises, and Hide proceeds to shoot him a subtly horrified look which he had to try hard not to smile to. “Now if you’ll excuse us, First Class Mado.”

Haise sets to work in filing an official report the moment he settles down behind his desk in the office assigned to his squad, Hide booting up the computer in the cubicle next to his. Despite all his talk about Shirazu and the guys being capable enough to handle their primary case on their own, Haise couldn’t help wondering if they’ll really be okay. Shirazu and Urie are bound to argue at some point, and it’ll be entirely up to Mutsuki to calm them down when it comes to that. Mutsuki has changed a little ever since he started training with Juuzou - he’s a little bolder and assertive now -  but Haise still isn’t sure if he’ll be able to break up a fight between the two taller boys when they’re worked up. He hopes he is. He also hopes the other two will have enough self-control not to snap at each other’s necks at the littlest of things. Otherwise they’ll never get anywhere with their investigation.

Haise stops to check on Hide’s progress before he proceeds to submit his official report and written appeal to undertake Saiko’s rescue mission to the department in charge. Hide had accessed into the CCG’s records system, and he’s currently going through a list of ghouls, all of them filed under a certain specification.

“I tried searching for ‘rose’ since that seems to be the most distinct feature about him,” Hide explains even though Haise hasn’t say a word. He keeps his eyes trained towards the monitor as he speaks. “But I had no matches, so I typed in ‘purple hair’ instead and let me tell you,” he pauses to look at Haise over his shoulder, widening his eyes dramatically, “ghouls seem to have some sort of thing with purple hair.”

“What do you mean?” Haise couldn’t help feeling the slightest bit amused with the way Hide had put that. Hide motions for him to focus on the screen once more.

“You see that scroll bar? You see how ridiculously short it is? I was hoping for, like, twenty results, not two hundred.” Hide makes a face. Haise figures his lack of sleep must finally be getting to him, to have him so agitated over something considered as a standard process. Also, there obviously weren’t two hundred results. “Seriously, is it a popular ghoul trend that never got old? Is that why there are so darn many of them over the years?”

“Just narrow down the search, Hide,” Haise tells him patiently, already wondering if they’d be able to spare some time later to let Hide catch a break and at least take a short nap. Haise himself is running on adrenaline as well, and he figures they wouldn’t be doing themselves any good by breaking down before they could even begin. “You can add in more details like his gender and approximate age and height and all that. That should be able to help you lessen the results.”

“I know.” Hide sighs, his shoulders sagging as he moves to key in the additional information like Haise had suggested. “It’s just-“ he makes an elaborate gesture with his hand, “-why purple of all colors?”

Haise shrugs, and he’s about to make a comment when the results of Hide’s new search pop up. The words die immediately in his throat and his heart rate spikes and he suddenly can’t seem to breathe. That guy there, the fourth one in the list; the one with a mask shaped like a crescent moon - there’s something odd about him, Haise’s certain, but what is it? What is it? His mind frantically grasps at the pieces that are simply not there. Who is that guy, and why does Haise have the strangest feeling that he should know him?

“Hmm? This bloke here..” Hide, oblivious to Haise’s internal struggle, clicks into the profile of the very same ghoul that had caught Haise’s attention and instantly drove his thoughts to disarray. “Gourmet, they call him. I’m not even going to start about that mask, but he seem to somehow give off the same vibes as Purpleman, don’t you think, Haise-“

Haise isn’t sure if he’d managed to hide his confusion in time before Hide turned around and faced him, but since the latter hadn’t pointed anything out, he guesses he’s successful. There’s the familiar dull throb at the back of his head again, and he works to ignore it. He’d done it so many times before; he can’t let it affect him now.

“Haise?” Hide prompts when Haise remains silent a second too long, concern beginning to tinge his voice. “You’re spacing out, buddy. Something wrong?”

“A-Ah, sorry!” Haise says, trying to sound sheepish to conceal the fact that he’s silently cursing at himself for almost giving it away. He then inhales a sharp breath to calm down. He has to focus. He leans forward slightly to study the profile of the ghoul Hide had just accessed. “He does look the same type as the guy at the station.”

“From the hairstyle down to the expensive suit,” Hide agrees, and Haise once again comes to appreciate the blond’s tendency to not pry into the things he’s not yet prepared to answer. “I’m going to look into this a little bit more. You go ahead and do what you’ve got to do.”

Haise had almost forgotten all about his documents until Hide mentioned it. Gratefully, he does a quick double-check on the papers before exiting the office, the persistent ache in his head still present.

Do you really think you can afford to keep being so laidback, Haise?

And there he is. Haise’s already expecting him from all the symptoms he’d been experiencing for the past ten minutes, though that doesn’t mean he’s prepared to listen to his usual taunts. At all. Then again, he’s almost never prepared for his appearances.

Because he only speaks of the deepest, darkest fears that Haise would rather prefer not to be reminded about.

You see? This is why you won’t ever be able to protect those you love. You lack the sense of urgency even when one of your precious subordinates is in danger of being killed by a ghoul. 

And the fact that he’s merely speaking the truth most of the time makes Haise even more uncomfortable.

I’ll save Saiko-chan, he swears, and he could almost see his inner self sneering at him as if he’d just made a ridiculous statement.

Save her? He scoffs. You don’t even know where she is.

Haise decides to refrain from retorting that it’s not like he knew any more than he does (does he even need to; since it’s all in his thoughts? Whatever). He could argue on and on with himself and go nowhere, or he could keep ignoring him like always and get on with life. The latter is always a better choice, especially when he’s out and bustling about. He might just blurt something aloud out of nowhere and earn himself some weird stares from the people who happen to be around him. Haise already has a suspicious reputation. He doesn’t need to make things any worse by talking to himself in public.

Only then, inner him always had other ideas, unfortunately.

It’s going to be a long day, and Haise knows it.

xXx

When Kanae said master, Saiko was expecting a person at least over the age of thirty; nicely kept and elegant-looking and perhaps also a little sickly because of how soft his voice had been the first time she’d heard him.

She wasn’t expecting a bedridden young man who looks so terrible that she’s actually contemplating on letting him eat a little bit of her just to help make him a little better.

Saiko had been dragged all the way to the master’s bedroom in highest floor of the mansion by Kanae, who, had been in too foul of a mood to even care that Saiko had freed herself from her handcuffs and blindfold. Though it’s not like Saiko had planned to take him on with him in that state. She figured the only thing holding him back from tearing her apart on the spot was his respect towards his master’s wishes. Saiko didn’t want to provoke him and grant him a reason to hurt her any more than he should.

Saiko stares at the figure sitting up on the huge bed in the huge room right now, unsure on how she should feel and react. If ‘Shuu-sama’ happened to be a healthy youth, Saiko could tell he’d be good-looking - almost on par with her fictional babies. His features are delicate and model-like, and judging from the broadness of his shoulders and the length of his arms and legs, he’s pretty tall and well-built. Under normal circumstances, he should be the sort who could still look good even in rumpled nightclothes.

But something had obviously happened, and ‘Shuu-sama’ must currently be in the worst state of his life. His hair, just a couple of shades lighter than Kanae’s with a slightly bluish hue, is long and stringy and barely groomed, his eyes and cheeks sunken, his body bone-thin. When he raises his hand to beckon Saiko closer after Kanae announced their arrival, she notices that his fingers are slightly knobby and that his nails are long and cracked.

With the condition he’s in and Kanae’s twisted determination, Saiko couldn’t help wondering just how long has it been since ‘Shuu-sama’ left his room.

“You may leave, Kanae,” the man says a little after Saiko’s forced to unfreeze from her spot with a not-so helpful shove from the mentioned ghoul, his voice every bit as weak and brittle as Saiko remembers from the day before. From the slight hitch in his breath, Kanae must’ve been tempted to argue about staying; but he seems to think better of it at the last minute, and grudgingly excuses himself.

Saiko stops a meter away from the master’s bed, willing herself not to fidget under his gaze. He looks like he barely has the strength to lift a finger, let alone fight or stop her if she attempts to escape. Then again, would she dare try anything stupid with the high possibility that Kanae’s standing right outside ready to spring into action at first moment’s notice?

“As I thought, you’re not him,” ‘Shuu-sama’ muses after a while of silence, sounding so somber that Saiko’s eyes flicker back towards him. What does he mean by she’s not ‘him’? Was he expecting someone else? “Tell me, what is your name, mademoiselle?”

When Saiko doesn’t answer him, he seems to realize he’d made a mistake. “Ah, how rude of me to ask that when I haven’t even introduced myself,” he says. He then places a hand over his heart and dips his head in a bow with surprising grace, and continues, “I’m Tsukiyama Shuu, the master of this house.”

“You’re a ghoul,” is the first thing Saiko blurts when she finally finds her voice, earning herself a small, slightly amused smile from Tsukiyama.

“I am,” he agrees, letting his hand fall back to his side. “And I presume you’re a half-ghoul, based on the unique taste of your blood and what Kanae told me?”

Saiko’s careful to evade the question. Buying time, she recalls. That’s what fictional characters always do when they’re in situations like this. “Why would you tell me your name when I could report you to the CCG?”

“Alas, I’m afraid that won’t be happening,” Tsukiyama tells her outright, his tone so matter-of-fact that Saiko feels a wave of self-doubt suddenly well up in his chest. “Even if I do not want to feast on your meat, I believe Kanae would be more than happy to deal with you.”

Which means Saiko’s chances for survival lies in her ability to win Tsukiyama Shuu’s favor somehow or another. She takes a deep breath to calm her nerves. “Wait - you don’t want to eat me?”

“You taste marvelous, really, but,” Tsukiyama pauses to shake his head forlornly, “there’s something that still doesn’t seem right.”

Saiko takes a moment to study the ghoul before her once more. With his wealth and looks, Tsukiyama should be a rather proud individual. It sure seems that way from the way he talks and the pictures of him hanging on the walls. For him to be in his current condition - he must’ve suffered some form of grief or loss recently, or at least something equally devastating. Judging from his appearance and his refusal to eat despite facing the danger of being overwhelmed by a ghoul’s violent starvation, Saiko guesses he must be under some form of depression.

Saiko honestly feels terrible that she’s planning to attempt taking advantage of this pitiful man, but she has no choice. Not if she wants to get out of there alive.

“Saiko,” she says, so out of the blue that Tsukiyama stares at her questioningly until she repeats; “Saiko’s name is Saiko.”

“A beautiful name,” Tsukiyama mutters, though whether he means it or not, Saiko isn’t sure. He does sound a tad bit halfhearted. “You must be quite a talented child*, to have that name bestowed upon you.”

“My name aside, won’t you be hungry if you don’t eat me?” Saiko finds herself asking next out of genuine concern. Wait, wait - she isn’t supposed to be sympathizing with a ghoul! And one whom she’s supposed to be fed to like a buffet meal, no less! However, Saiko also realizes that she has to earn his trust in order to buy herself more time. She’d already caught a slightest bit of his interest. She has to make sure he wouldn’t send her away to be disposed of anytime soon. “I mean, I am supposed to be your food, after all.”

“Even if I am hungry and I do eat, it’s not like I’ll see him again,” Tsukiyama says almost inaudibly, averting his gaze wistfully towards the window. Saiko notices how the drawn curtains are kind of ruining the (dramatic) mood he’s probably trying to create, so she quietly scuttles over and tentatively pulls one sheet back, wincing when direct sunlight meets her eyes. Ugh. This is why she keeps the curtains in her own room drawn at all times. Hearing no complaints from the ghoul, she proceeds to move back to his side, and casually gestures to a nearby chair to be granted permission to sit - which she shortly is.

“He?” Saiko prompts, pressing her palms on her knees and leaning a little forward in honest interest this time. “You’re looking for someone?”

When Tsukiyama remains silent, she quickly tries to change the topic; “T-Tsukiyama-san, you don’t go outside often, do you?”

“I used to do that,” Tsukiyama admits, going with the conversation more willingly than Saiko had expected. “But I just don’t feel like it anymore these days.”

“Saiko understands that feeling,” Saiko says, crossing her arms and nodding thoughtfully. “You know what, Saiko’s a shut-in too. Especially now that winter’s starting - having to go out into the cold is a real pain. I’d rather stay indoors all day trying to get that super rare sword, but my Maman and the rest of my squad always seem to have other ideas.”

“They’re only thinking of your wellbeing, little rabbit,” Tsukiyama tells her, though again, he barely sounds like he means it because of his unenthusiastic tone. “Being indoors too long is bad for your health. Just look at what it did to me.”

“Then you should go out, too,” Saiko says, warming up. “Winter air is annoyingly cold, but it’s really fresh, and it’s good for your system! My Maman told me so.”

“That isn’t possible,” Tsukiyama says with a slightly bitter laugh. “That’s not possible any longer. I do not have the strength-“

“In that case, eat and regain all the energy you need!” Saiko doesn’t realize she’d actually just encouraged a ghoul to kill possibly innocent people for the sake of his own survival even after the words leave her mouth; mainly because she’s too focused on her sudden intense urge to help this man get back on his feet. There’s something about Tsukiyama, something Saiko can’t figure out, that motivates her to earnestly try returning him to his full glory even though she knows that it isn’t an easy task, seeing how even his own servants have evidently failed in doing the same thing. “If you don’t ever go outside, how do you expect to find the person you’re looking for?”

“But you-“ Tsukiyama starts to protest, but Saiko’s on a roll.

“You can’t always rely on other people,” she goes on, her fingers twisting into the hem of her shirt. “I mean, even I have to go out myself yesterday and a few times before to get the things I want because no one else knows that. How many years has it been since you saw this person, Tsukiyama-san? How familiar are your retainers with him?”

“It’s been a couple of years and no, they’re not exactly-“ Tsukiyama stammers, quite overwhelmed by Saiko’s sudden torrent of speech. He’s once again cut off before he could complete his sentence, standing no chance against the girl’s agitation.

“Exactly!” Saiko’s saying, getting quite emotionally carried away. “He could’ve changed in appearance after all those years, and you yourself should be the best person to search for him because you know him best among everyone here. Who knows, you might just randomly bump into him in the streets one day! There’ll always be a possibility as long as you take the initiative.”

There’s a lapse of silence once she finishes speaking, and it goes on for so long it eventually dawns Saiko that she might have accidentally overstepped her boundaries. A ghoul wouldn’t want to be lectured, wouldn’t want to be told what to do by a meager ‘rabbit’- as they keep calling her. She’s just livestock in this household. She has no right to speak so casually to its master.

“I honestly did not anticipate you to be such a chatterer,” Tsukiyama finally says after a few minutes, and Saiko gulps, not even daring to breathe. This is it. She’d brought it upon herself by forgetting her place. “I suppose you’re right about me going outside again, but unfortunately, there is one thing that you seem to misunderstand.”

He waits until Saiko summons enough courage to resume eye contact with him before continuing in a voice so crestfallen that Saiko honestly thought he would burst into tears; “The person you said I was looking for - he’s no longer alive.”

xXx

Urie tails behind his two teammates as they head out for lunch after spending their entire morning going around surveying the area which they expect the next ghoul incident to take place.

The ghoul they’re currently investigating targets mainly middle school student regardless of gender and lineage. They’d gotten surprisingly far with the identifications during the past few days with the help of their two superiors; the ghoul’s common appearance, habits, and hunting pattern. They’d even managed to find out that she usually preys during the quiet time when students are returning home late from extra lessons or club activities. Really, all that’s left now is to wait for Monday to come and the ghoul to make her move so they can chase her down and hopefully exterminate her on the spot so they wouldn’t need to drag the case unnecessarily.

“What are you doing; lagging behind us, Uri?” Shirazu’s voice jerks Urie out of his thoughts, and the latter refocuses his vision, realizing that he’d ended up walking quite far behind his teammates. Not that he cares, really. He could and would even walk off by himself right there and then, but they’d made plans to seek out the locally famous ramen restaurant to have their lunch, and Urie really likes ramen.

He gestures for the other two to leave him be, and Shirazu’s more than happy to oblige (Mutsuki doesn’t look too comfortable with it, but he knows Urie’s ways). Urie resumes thinking once Shirazu and Mutsuki faces forward again, careful to spare some attention to where they’re going so he wouldn’t wander off track by mistake.

The nagging feeling from earlier in the morning is still bothering him more than he wants to admit. It frustrating; how the memory lingers right at the very edges of his mind and just barely out of his reach. Urie racks his brain trying to figure out what he’s trying to remember. What’s so significant about roses? Had he glimpsed at a gorgeous bouquet of them once and wanted to paint them out but never had the time to? Did it have to do with a long-forgotten recollection of his younger days which he’d tucked into the very back of his mind where it’s to be forgotten forever? Or did he simply pass by a flower shop with a particularly fragrant scent of roses recently?

The scent of roses. Something clicks into place. Yes, it has something to do with the smell of the flower. But what is it? What had stood out enough to make Urie subconsciously take note of it?

He’s almost done with is his bowl of noodles when it all abruptly comes back to him. It’s been almost two months, but he’s certain that that’s it; that’s the thing that’d been bugging him all morning.

During their investigation on Torso, Urie had detected the faintest scent of roses from a certain midget informant.

It might be farfetched, but it’s worth a try. Besides, even if she isn’t related to Saiko’s abductors, she might have some information about them. With their current lack of leads, they’re bound to resolve to using informants anyway - especially now that time isn’t on their side. They’ve got nothing to lose.

Urie stands up,  brusquely announces to his companions that he has a phone call to make, and stalks outside.

Apparently, there are several reports to the police regarding a certain suspicious individual carrying a young girl over his shoulder like a sack of flour all the way to a foreign black car parked behind the facility. All eye-witnesses have been too far off to determine any further details like the plate number, but they were certain that the vehicle had been heading towards the eastbound highway.

Haise sighs as he keeps staring at the sheet of messy handwritten notes before him, tapping his fingers impatiently against the top of his desk. He’d tried again and again and again, but he just couldn’t seem to connect the dots. Every assumption he and Hide made were too baseless for them to  hang on to. The car had been expensive, meaning it belonged to someone rich enough to afford it. It headed towards the east, so it could’ve gone to the 6th, 7th or 8th Ward**, which are the closest to the 1st. They wouldn’t have the time to track down each and every millionaire ghoul in three different Wards; that’s just ridiculous!

The ghoul Gourmet is from the 7th Ward according to the CCG’s registry, but his relation to Rose (the official alias given to ‘Purpleman’, much to Hide’s chagrin) is merely an intuition from the both of them, and that’s not solid enough. They had to be a hundred percent sure if they intend to bring Saiko back alive. And they aren’t. Not yet.

Haise breathes another sigh, and he’d just decided that it’s about time to wake Hide up from his fifteen-minute nap when his cellphone buzzes to life. He hurries to pick up the call, but Hide’s already stirring at the sound of his ringtone, slowly straightening from his hunched-over position on his desk with a yawn. When Haise shoots him an apologetic look, he only responds with a sleepy smile and a dismissive wave of his hand.

Haise then turns back to his phone, raising his eyebrows when he sees the name flashing across the display screee. Urie’s actually calling him? Whoa. Worry creeps up on him despite himself. Haise has been in charge of the Quinx for over a year, and it’s the first time something like this had happened.

“Urie-kun?” he says once he accepts the call, hoping he doesn’t sound remotely as unsettled as he feels. Hide seems to share his sentiments when he hears his mention of their subordinate’s name.

“I think I know a way to find Yonebayashi,” Urie is straight to the point as usual, and it’s ironic how Haise finds a little comfort in the tinge of unwillingness in the younger boy’s voice. “There’s this information broker with the name Hori Chie..”

 

Chapter Text

His name was Kaneki Ken.

And he was a half-ghoul just like Saiko.

Or, more accurately, just like Saiko’s Maman, but the girl doesn’t mention that.

Kaneki Ken, according to Tsukiyama, had been the bearer of a tragic fate - something Saiko understood only after he tells her his story. Kaneki had been turned into a ghoul against his will, and his entire life after that had consisted of nothing but hurdles. Saiko doesn’t quite believe Tsukiyama when he tells her that Kaneki’s hair actually turned from black to pure white in a matter of days (that could only happen in fiction!) but the ghoul assures that he tells no lies. Kaneki Ken, after being forced to undergo something utterly traumatic and live through it, had changed from the shy, helpless university student he’d started out as to a hardhearted half-ghoul who’d insisted on pushing himself to his limits even when he doesn’t need to. He fought for others even when Tsukiyama personally saw no necessity for it.

Saiko doesn’t get to hear the remaining of the tale thanks to a particularly loud grumble her stomach decided to produce - and at the best part, too. She thought Tsukiyama would simply ignore her and go on at first, but it seems that the ghoul really had started taking a liking to her because he sends for his servants the moment Saiko admits to be starving.

He would’ve probably ordered them to bring her human meat too if she hadn’t made the split-second decision to admit that she wasn’t a half-ghoul; not exactly.

“Not exactly a half-ghoul?” Tsukiyama inquires once his servants left to search for the appropriate food for his guest, studying Saiko with renewed interest. Compared to forty-five minutes ago, he seems almost like a completely different man. Saiko finally spots a spark in those initially lifeless eyes, and she could tell that he appreciated her attention when he talked of his friend who was never coming back. Oddly enough, Saiko feels a little proud of herself for this little achievement. “Won’t you tell me more, little rabbit?”

Saiko hesitates, wondering if she really should. Then again, she realizes, the existence of the Quinx isn’t exactly a deep dark secret the CCG is keeping. Not with how they’re allowed to use their kagune when they participate in missions. It should be alright.

So she tells him, how she in fact has a modified Quinque implanted into her body instead of a kakuhou by itself. Though that’s all she knows about the matter, it seems to be enough to pique Tsukiyama’s curiosity.

“No wonder your blood tastes so.. peu commun,” he mutters, covering his mouth in thought. “It has such a human flavor, yet there’s still the slightest tang of a ghoul’s in it. It’s a different composition from Kaneki-kun’s entirely.”

“Uhuh,” Saiko agrees despite having absolutely no idea what the guy just said. She tries not to cringe when the ghoul trains his gaze on her, feeling the ease she’d initially felt around him slowly fading away with the way he’s staring at her.

“A-Anyway, Tsukiyama-san,” Saiko speaks before Tsukiyama could, hoping to divert his attention once more. She doesn’t like that unexpectedly intense look in his eyes; almost like an excited child’s at a toy store. “Where were you? In Kaneki-san’s story, I mean.”

“Ah, yes, that.” The gloominess that had temporarily gone away for the past few minutes returns to Tsukiyama’s features at the mention of Kaneki’s name. Saiko couldn’t help wondering what exactly is his connection with the guy; seeing how one single name is able to change his mood so drastically. A good friend maybe? Life-long bros? Someone he considered family?

The notion lingers in Saiko’s thoughts as she listens on to the ghoul’s recollection of this mysterious yet oddly fascinating person. Her inquisitiveness grows when Tsukiyama progressively gets more and more personal in his descriptions; mentioning odd things and minute details that one would normally seldom notice about another unless they pay lots of attention to them. And when she says lots of attention, she means lots of attention. Perhaps to an unhealthy level, even.

At any rate, Kaneki Ken had, under the circumstances that had been forced upon him, resulted to cannibalism in his pursuit to grow stronger (Tsukiyama’s very words). And though cannibalism among ghouls does make one immensely more powerful by turning them into a kakuja, the price is heavy.

Kaneki’s mental health had suffered in exchange for the strength he gained.

Even so, he remained heart-wrenchingly kind to the people important to him even after throwing his humanity away and stepping into a world of blood and violence, Tsukiyama insists. Even though he’s ruthless towards those he considers his enemies, he’d never intentionally hurt his friends. Never. And it’s this kindness of his that ultimately caused his downfall and got him killed in a raid by the CCG several years ago.

“I forbid him from going,” Tsukiyama finishes hoarsely, fingers curling into the material of his blanket at the memory. “I tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t listen. He just wouldn’t listen.”

Saiko takes a bite out of her soggy sandwich, nodding in silence. Kaneki Ken was indeed a fellow with a life worthy of a fictional character’s, and Saiko figures she’d no doubt want to claim him as one of her sons and metaphorically wrap him up in blankets and protect him from all harm if he seriously was one. She still does, actually, and it’s crazy because Saiko doesn’t even know him, but knowing that he’d gone through so much just to die in the end really saddens her. Was death his only salvation after all? Was it really his fate to live a tragedy till the end?

“I can’t believe I actually just told you all that, Saiko-san,” Tsukiyama says after a short while of wordlessness to pull himself together, laughing a short, empty laugh. “You know, I originally thought of him as nothing but an extremely rare ingredient for the perhaps greatest recipe of all time. I thought I would let his taste develop and devour him later.”

“And?” Saiko couldn’t help prompting the moment he trails off because his feelings had obviously changed over time. No one could be so utterly distressed over the loss of what they merely consider food, no matter how much they’d anticipated it. Not even Tsukiyama could be that melodramatic, could he? It doesn’t seem likely.

“I.. don’t know,” Tsukiyama admits, averting his gaze. “I don’t even know why I’ve felt so.. listless ever since that day.”

“Maybe it’s because you thought of him as someone who’s more than just food to you?” Saiko suggests, noticing for the first time that perhaps this ghoul before her is a little slow in the relationship department. “Maybe the time you’d spent with him made you see him as an actual friend and not just a meal?”

“Friend, you say?” Tsukiyama muses, almost to himself. “What exactly makes a person my ‘friend’?”

Ah. Saiko was dreading this question; mainly because it’s not something that’s commonly needed to be explained and she honestly has no idea where to start. She fiddles with her fingers and spends a minute to contemplate over how she should answer.

“Friends.. are basically people who understand you and stick with you through all kinds of situations,” she begins haltingly, careful to make it as understandable as she can. “You’ll care for each other, and you’ll always help each other out even though you might get into fights at times. You might sometimes even feel fiercely protective over one another, and basically friends are people who accept you for who you are and make you feel comfortable when you’re with them.”

Okay, so she might have messed up the last part, but it seems to be good enough; with the way Tsukiyama’s reflecting over her words.

“That’s.. all?” Tsukiyama sounds taken aback at the simplicity of the concept. Tentatively, Saiko nods, silently congratulating herself for (mostly) nailing the explanation. She should’ve learnt something from reading all those sports manga. She shoots Tsukiyama a questioning look when the ghoul meets her gaze again.

“Is Saiko-san my friend, then?” he inquires, absolutely earnest despite his childlike question.

“Does Tsukiyama-san want Saiko to be your friend?” Saiko asks in return, realizing a moment later that she’d actually meant it; that she isn’t simply thinking of her own escape when she says this. Tsukiyama’s wordless for a few seconds more, and then he smiles.

“If you’re willing,” he says, and Saiko feels herself responding with a grin of her own.

“Okay,” she replies, and her regret is almost immediate thanks the next thing Tsukiyama asks of her.

“Well then,” the ghoul says, giving Saiko the very same look that had put her on guard earlier as he speaks. “Could you, perhaps, as my friend, allow me to have another taste of your blood?”

xXx

They somehow manage to arrange a meet-up with Hori Chie in a family restaurant in the 2nd Ward that very evening.

Hide would’ve preferred to hold their discussion in a place that offers them more privacy, but since that seems to be against Hori’s personal policies, they don’t have much of a choice. Being somewhat of an informant himself once, Hide understands her rationale. Information is something many parties will do anything to obtain. Hori Chie can’t afford to be any less wary than she is, not if she wants to thrive in this line of work.

Urie had given them a description of the information broker during his phone call to Haise (Hide’s still weirded out by that, but whatever) and Hide scans his eyes across the place in search for a match now; a child-like appearance, short auburn hair, carries a pink camera. It’s still a little early for dinner under normal circumstances, so the restaurant is not yet as crowded as Hide expects, and he and Haise soon finds the girl seated behind a table by the window at the back of the shop, enjoying a parfait as she studies the images in her camera.

“Excuse me,” Hide speaks up once they approach her, just to make sure they’d gotten the right person. “Are you Hori Chie-san, by any chance?”

At the sound of his voice, the girl looks up to regard them. “I am. And you guys must be Sasaki-kun and Nagachika-kun?”

“Yes,” Haise affirms before accepting Hori’s gestural  invitation for them to settle down across her. “Do you mind if we go straight to the point?”

“Unless you’d like to order something to eat,” Hori says, tucking her camera back into its case. Hide could already tell from her manner that despite her appearance, Hori’s experienced in this line of work. They could try tricking or threatening her only to end up failing. She’ll only be giving them whatever information they can afford.

Hide’s not quite sure how much their budget is, exactly, but he decides not to worry about that yet.

“I think we’ll pass, thank you,” Haise replies politely, reaching into his bag to retrieve his tablet. He boots it up and taps across its surface a few times before placing it on the table and pushing it towards the girl. “We’d like to know if you’ve got any data on this person?”

Hide studies Hori’s face as she stares at the clearest magnified picture of Purpleman they’d managed to obtain. After spending so much time with Kaneki, Hide has learnt how to understand expressions and body language quite well - if he could say so himself. He knows the usual habits of a liar and the  common mannerism of a person who’s hiding something; the way their eyes shift, their hands move, their voices sound.

But he finds that he could not read this girl in front of him. At all. Hori’s facade and demeanor betrays absolutely nothing. Hide couldn’t decide whether to feel more wary or impressed. This skill of hers is no doubt useful to her as an informant, but it might be a tad bit troublesome for them as her clients. There are always possibilities of her withholding information, even though she should be reliable enough since Urie used her services before.

“2.5 million,” Hori states after a moment, and Hide really hopes that number’s not what he thinks it is. “For 2.5 million yen, I’ll tell you everything you want to know about him.”

So she does know who the ghoul is. But 2.5 million - Hide knows it’s an impossible fee for them to afford even with their combined efforts. They just don’t have that kind of money. Haise must be thinking of the exact same thing, judging by the bleakness written all over his face when Hide catches a glimpse of him from the corner of his eye.

“Is there any other way we can pay for the information?” Haise asks, sounding almost pleading. There has to be something else they can recompense with. They can’t just leave when what they want and need is literally right there before them! There has to be something else Hori wants.

We can barter,” Hide mutters when the idea abruptly comes to him. He sits a little straighter and continues in a clearer voice, “We’ll do an exchange - information for information.”

That seems to have caught Hori’s interest; or at least Hide thinks it did from the way she quirked an eyebrow at his proposal. “What have you got to offer, Nagachika-kun?” she asks as she leans a little forward, her smile turning slightly guarded.

“The CCG’s connections, secret projects, database records - you name it,” Hide says, promptly earning himself a worried glance from Haise. He stops him with a small shake of his head the moment he sees him open his mouth to protest. It’s alright. He’ll take full responsibility for his decisions. Besides, he trusts Hori Chie’s principles as an informant to not give him away. “But I can only tell you all that after this discussion. Specifically when we’re alone in a place with more confidentiality.”

Hori purses her lips and taps her finger against the base of her glass as she reconsiders his terms. Hide silently begs for her to risk this one exception. She should identify with his reasons, perhaps even better than how he understands hers. The less people aware of a certain knowledge, the more valuable it is. Also, Hide wants to keep Haise out of this. He’ll be the only one punished if his role in causing the leak of data is discovered by any chance, and he’s perfectly fine with that.

“The grill two streets behind this place has private booths,” Hori finally says after a minute of silence, meeting Hide’s gaze. “You okay with that?”

“Deal,” Hide nods, then gesturing towards the image displayed on Haise’s tablet. “Now tell us where’s this guy from and how we can get there.”

“He’s from the 7th Ward, working as a servant under another ghoul.” Hori begins without even needing to stop to think. Either her memory is excellent, she’d already sorted out everything she wants to tell them, or she’s actually familiar enough with the ghoul to have his specifications at her fingertips. From what Hide understands from Urie, there’s a chance of it being the last one. “He serves the ghoul you investigators call the Gourmet.”

“Gourmet..?” Haise sounds unusually disturbed by the mention of the name, Hide notices again. Despite Haise’s efforts to hide his perplexity earlier that day when they were going through the mentioned ghoul’s records, Hide could tell that he’s troubled by something. It’s a farfetched guess, but maybe he recognized the guy because he knew him before he forgot everything? Maybe this Gourmet guy used to be a friend or simply an acquaintance back when Haise was still Kaneki? Hide doesn’t know, and that worries him. If Gourmet really did have some sort of connection with Kaneki, Hide will have a problem.

“As for how you can get there, I’d recommend using the highway if you’re not a fan of stagnant traffic especially during rush hours,” Hori says as she scoops some partially melted ice cream into her mouth, and Hide needs a double take to let realization dawn him. Wait-

“That’s not what I meant,” he protests, almost standing up in his fit of agitation, and the girl merely shrugs, indifferent. Damn, she’s sharp with small details.

“That’s what you said,” she tells him simply, and Hide’s considering beating himself up for his blunder. He should’ve chosen his words better. “Unless you want to raise the compensation?”

As if they have any other choice. “Tell us his specific location,” Hide says, suppressing a weary sigh. As confident as he is about having enough resources to pay for these information, there are still some things he’s reluctant about sharing. He’ll have to be careful when answering to her questions later. Wouldn’t want to be caught off guard twice.

There’s a short pause before Hori resumes speaking. “You know what, I think I can give you guys that as a bonus,” she says, and Hide spots a certain twinkle in her eyes. He has the worst feeling that she’s plotting something, and he hates the fact that he can’t do anything much about it; not if they want to save Saiko in time. “But only under one condition,” Hori’s expression doesn’t change as she points her spoon at Haise’s direction, “Sasaki Haise-kun will have to be part of the group that goes after him.”

There’s definitely something fishy going on here. Hide’s certain now. Just what is Hori Chie planning?

“You have my word,” Haise promises, looking so resolute that Hide knows he won’t be able to stop him even if he wants to. They’ll just have to deal with whatever happens when the time comes.

“Alright then,” Hori says, her satisfaction evident. She shifts on her seat into a more comfortable position, and continues, “I hope you have a map in your tablet because I have no idea how much will you guys get without any visual aid.”

xXx

Saiko’s surprised at her own willingness to comply to Tsukiyama’s request once the initial shock has passed.

Opening a gash across her forearm just a little away from her wrist is less painful than having a chunk of her flesh bitten off, for one thing. Not to mention a cut is much easier to heal from compared to a missing chunk of meat. Also, shut-in buddies or not, it’s still a matter of survival on Saiko’s part. Tsukiyama’s a ghoul who hasn’t eaten in a while. There’s no telling if he’d get carried away if she does let him have a bite of her.

Saiko fidgets in her chair as she watches Tsukiyama take a sip out of the barely filled glass she handed to him, trying hard not to think about how the dark red liquid inside used to be part of her own body. She’s glad Tsukiyama only wants literally a taste because with her regeneration speed and caution not to make too deep of a cut, simply obtaining a decent amount of blood is a challenge by itself. Just because it hurts less doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt at all. Though Saiko would really prefer it to be the latter. Ah, wishful thinking.

She cringes when Tsukiyama suddenly makes a weird noise while savoring the taste of her blood in his mouth, his eyes squeezed shut and his eyebrows knitted in what she thinks is intense concentration.

“I didn’t quite notice this before, but this-“ Tsukiyama mutters fervently once he’d swallowed, placing his fingers on his lips, “- this spicy tang combined with an unexpected silky smooth texture; the explosion of flavor that leaves my taste buds tingling yet leaves no burn down the throat..!” His gaze flickers towards Saiko, and the girl’s amazed to see that he looks more like an excited puppy than a slightly obsessive ghoul (because of the creepy commentary he’d just made about her blood, come on). “You taste truly exquisite, Saiko-san.”

“Umm, thank you?” Saiko replies, albeit with a little too much awkwardness to her liking. What exactly is she supposed to say to that though, she has no idea. It’s not every day that she gets complimented for how she tastes like. “Anyway, does it help with your appetite, Tsukiyama-san?”

Tsukiyama’s quiet in thought for several seconds. “I suppose I do feel like having a little more.”

Saiko sure hopes he doesn’t mean more from her. “I’m sure Kanae has something prepared that you’d like,” she says, praying for him to not correct her. She isn’t sure if she’d be able to properly convince him that friends do not, under most circumstances, eat each other should the necessity arise.

She almost exhales a loud breath of relief when he nods in agreement to her statement.

“He has always been a dutiful child,” Tsukiyama says, not without a tinge of weary fondness in his voice. Unlike her teammates, Saiko doesn’t harbor any particular grudges or hatred towards ghouls, so her perception towards them has never been limited to what a majority of humans say and believe. They can’t all be vicious and heartless and barbaric. Apart from the fact that they have no choice but to eat human meat, they can’t be that much different from humans. Surely, they have feelings too. Surely, they’re more similar than they think.

And being here, in this household where the master suffers from crippling grief and seeing the lengths his servants are willing to go through in order to make him feel better, Saiko knows that she’s right about them having emotions just like everyone else. Kanae’s how he is because of his love towards his master, because he does not want his master to suffer from starvation and possibly end up dying. And Tsukiyama, though he’s unable to help his lack of urge to eat, genuinely appreciates his efforts with all his heart - Saiko could tell from his voice. Just like humans, ghouls are capable of caring for another. Of experiencing fear, desperation. They aren’t complete monsters.

“But Saiko-san would find it rather unpleasant to witness me eating, wouldn’t you?” Tsukiyama adds after a brief pause, flashing her a small, apologetic smile. Saiko can’t deny; actually watching a ghoul eat is not something she’s certain she’s able to stomach. “How about this: I’ll ask Matsumae to prepare a room for you to rest in at the mean time. You can even take a bath to freshen up.”

“A-A simple room is enough! I wouldn’t want to impose,” Saiko says quickly, waving her hands in front of her for emphasis. As good of an idea a shower sounds, Saiko doesn’t want to feel too relaxed and let her guard down. Not only is there a chance that rescue could be arriving any moment, Saiko still doesn’t know for sure how Tsukiyama’s servants feel towards her closeness towards their master. Kanae might not be the only one who’s distasteful towards her somewhat abrupt change of status from ‘food’ to ‘honored guest’. Saiko’s not exactly appealed by the idea of having to defend herself stark naked if the situation leads to that.

“If that’s what you want, then,” Tsukiyama says before reaching over to press a button on a panel mounted on his nightstand. Saiko thinks she’s able to hear the faintest ringing of a bell somewhere in the manor. “I’ll send for you again later, little rabbit,” Tsukiyama says once he turns to face her again. “There’s still a lot of things I wish you could tell me.”

“Just be careful not to choke or bite your tongue when you eat, Tsukiyama-san,” Saiko tells him, earning herself a light, amused laugh from the ghoul. Yeah, this Tsukiyama definitely beats the gloomy one she’d started out with earlier.

“I will, don’t worry,” he assures, and it’s at that moment that a knock sounds on his door. He voices his permission, and Matsumae steps in. “Matsumae, could you please show our guest to a room where she can have a nice, peaceful break? And please send Kanae to me while you’re at it.”

Saiko guesses Matsumae’s too professional to let her astonishment show, but the slight twitch of her fingers is enough to indicate that she couldn’t quite believe her senses. Saiko can’t blame her. There is a pretty drastic change in Tsukiyama’s person in a matter of hours, after all. Even Saiko finds it surprising; how she’s able to improve his mood to this extent by simply listening to him. Maybe that’s what he needed all this while; someone who could understand him. Someone who could decipher his confusion and let him know that his distress is normal and that he isn’t being silly over the mere loss of an easily replaceable meal.

Saiko tries to keep a safe distance between the servant ghoul and herself as she follows her out of Tsukiyama’s bedroom - which, isn’t exactly a difficult feat considering the latter’s walking speed. In fact, Saiko eventually falls so far behind that she has to jog a little just to make sure she doesn’t lose sight of her. Tsukiyama might’ve been interested in her as a ‘friend’, but from the way Matsumae doesn’t even bother checking once to see if she’s still behind her, Saiko figures she still hasn’t acknowledged her as someone beyond the status of livestock. At least not for now.

Which, brings her back to her unstable safety position in this household.

Saiko’s led to a relatively small but posh room on the floor below the master bedroom’s, not receiving a single word from Matsumae even when she moves to close the door once Saiko’s inside. Saiko hears a lock click in place a little later, and though she shouldn’t feel so relieved about being confined again, she is. With luck, it’ll be slightly trickier to get to her from the outside if anything happens. 

Saiko walks over and sits down on the edge of the double bed, turning to look out the large French window. The room must be facing the back of the manor, judging from the view. If she wants to go on with her escape plan from earlier, now would be a good time. The distance from the back of the manor to the wall separating it from the outside world should be much shorter compared to that between the front yard and gates. If Saiko somehow manages to scale the wall and reach the other side, she’ll be free.

But what if Maman and the others are already on the way to get her now? Saiko stands up and heads towards the window to get a better grip on her surroundings. Tsukiyama’s home seems to be quite isolated from the rest of civilization, and Saiko’s chances of simply finding a good place to hide and a phone to use or borrow are slim. If she somehow misses Sasaki (or anyone who’s coming to retrieve her, for that matter) and causes a misunderstanding, Tsukiyama might get hurt. She doesn’t want that.

..That’s right. There’s Tsukiyama to think about. Should Saiko really leave him when she’d just agreed to be his friend? Would it be right for her to leave him just when he’s finally beginning to show signs of cheering up? Didn’t she tell him that friends stick together? If she left now, wouldn’t she be betraying him? Him, who probably had no other friends ever since he lost Kaneki?

Saiko couldn’t believe she’s actually having these thoughts now, but..

..does she really want to leave so soon?

xXx

Haise returns home alone, with Hide insisting on being the only one to stay behind to finish up their part of the deal.

For the umpteenth time, Haise feels frustratingly useless. He’d practically left this whole information-gathering business entirely to Hide, being able to do next to nothing except jotting down the directions to the location Hori Chie told them about. Of course, it’s not entirely his fault that he’s only been kept up to date over the things that concerned him and that Hide probably knows more than what’s good for him - but still. Haise wishes he could do more than just fretting over things he has no power over.

If there’s anything that bothers him more than his inability to contribute more towards Saiko’s rescue, it’s the ghoul ‘Gourmet’s identity. His time alone during his journey back to the chateau had allowed him to delve deep into his thoughts; so much so that he’d almost missed the station he’s supposed to get off on to change trains. The sense of recognition when he saw Gourmet’s picture - it’s almost similar to how Haise had felt when he first met Hide, except perhaps not as intense. And unlike how it’d been with Hide, Haise has the strangest feeling that he’d seen this man somewhere before. 

It’s only when he has left his last stop and continued his way back on foot that it abruptly comes back to him; that mask, appearance. The name ‘Gourmet’. He remembers now. The metallic smell of blood all around him. The cheer of a crowd.  Haise had seen glimpses of him in his dreams before; in the stands of some sort of arena where Haise’s in the first-person perspective of someone being chased by some sort of lumbering monster.

But why would he appear in his nightmares when Haise wasn’t even aware of his existence until earlier this morning? Rather, what made him stand out in those nightmares? Why would Haise notice him and not some other random spectator? It doesn’t make sense. Unless-

Did you know him? Haise wonders, mostly by accident because he has never tried this before, never actually tried acknowledging the inner him like this, let alone ask him questions regarding the people he was acquainted with. He carries the memories he has so much conflicting feelings over, after all. Asking him would mean that he’s admitting to be even the slightest bit curious, and Haise knows full well that he’d use that as a chance to take advantage of him.

However, contrary to Haise’s expectations, what greets him is utter silence. Either inner him did not hear him, or he’s simply returning the favor by ignoring him. Whatever it is, Haise gladly leaves it as that. He really isn’t sure how he’s going to react if inner him were to answer him with “You’ll know once you accept me” or anything of that sort. No matter how much time has passed since he started hearing his voice, Haise still isn’t too big about the whole ‘accepting inner him’ thing.

Then again, he probably knows the answers to so many of Haise’s questions; answers that he secretly wants so badly. Like why he finds some people he’s sure he’d never met before so familiar and why he’s been having warmer and gentler dreams more often now. Like why he’s been dreaming of a study crammed with books that gives him unexplainable comfort and an apartment that bears the musty scent of old paper. Like why he’s been finding himself in a playground he’d never been to before, accompanied by a person he can barely see.

Like why he’s been seeing blurry images of a blond who took his hand when no one did and showed him a smile that rivaled the sun, who gives him so much warmth in his chest that he feels like crying every time he sees him.

Who, ultimately, reminds him of home.

Haise has had his suspicions with ever since he managed to recall the words he’d heard him say during the auction, and with the recent events, it only made him more certain. Those visions.. maybe they’re more than just dreams. Maybe they aren’t even dreams at all.

And maybe, just maybe, Haise once knew Hide.

xXx

From everything he’d gathered, Hide’s aware that Gourmet is obviously stinking rich, but the size of his residence is still pretty ridiculous.

He has no idea how they’re going to find Saiko in such a huge place - provided she’s still in one piece, which, he prays she is. Otherwise they’ll have every reason to retaliate and begin a two-man mass extermination - something Hide would prefer not to end up doing even if it is an order from the higher-ups. No matter how much faith they have in their combat abilities, it’s still a little too much. With his wealth and status, Gourmet is bound to have at least two or three skilled retainers. Or worse, every servant in the household is crazy strong. Hide wants to avoid a potentially hopeless battle at all costs.

He and Haise had agreed to carry out their mission in the morning when the ghoul’s servants are most likely to be too preoccupied with their daily routine to pay much attention to anything that might seem out of place (like the presence of two ghoul investigators sneaking around, for instance). They’ll knock them out if they happen to encounter them, and killing isn’t an option unless they absolutely have no other choice. The primary motive of their mission isn’t eradication. If all goes well, they only have to find Saiko and get out of there before anyone gets severely hurt.

“You’re worrying again, aren’t you, Haise?” Hide whispers, lips curled into a wry smile upon noticing the set of his companion’s shoulders beside him as they press their backs flat against the wall. Really, he shouldn’t be the one to talk. His one-to-one conversation with Hori Chie the night before had left him with so many things to ponder over that he needs an embarrassing amount of effort just to avert his focus back to his priorities. All he’s certain about is that that girl’s plotting something that involves Haise, and it annoys Hide to no end that he hasn’t the slightest idea over what that something is.

“I just hope Saiko-chan’s still alright,” Haise says, eyebrows slightly drawn together as he stares towards the hidden entrance Hori Chie had informed them about. Hide gets the feeling that there’s more to that, but since now’s not exactly the time to pry, he doesn’t. He adjusts his hold on his briefcase instead, and breathes out a slow exhale.

“Yeah,” he says, then with as much confidence he can muster, he adds; “You ready?”

Haise takes a deep breath of his own, and responds with a firm nod. “Let’s do this.”

And pushing back the foreboding feeling in his gut, Hide detaches himself from the wall, and follows Haise towards the entrance.

 

 

Chapter Text

It turns out that the things Tsukiyama wished she could tell him mainly have something to do with the rest of the Quinx.

When Saiko was brought to the ghoul again after being left alone for a few hours, the first thing she notices is that some colour has returned to his cheeks, his complexion no longer deathly pale. His hair is also freshly brushed and he’d changed into a new set of clothes. Tsukiyama had obviously done more than just eat during Saiko’s absence from his room. Seeing him mostly groomed up now reminds Saiko of how handsome Tsukiyama really is despite the condition he’s in. Like, whoaa. That’s babe material right there.

Initially, Saiko’s unsure if she should reply when he asks if there are other Quinx like her. He isn’t planning to somehow sample each of their blood, is he? Even if Saiko retrieves them on his behalf, it’d be downright weird. Everyone would think that there’s something wrong with her! Maman would freak out!

Saiko ends up telling him anyway, thinking that she’ll just attempt to persuade him to give up on obtaining a taste of each of them if she needs to. Though she doesn’t look like it, Saiko would really love to talk about her squad, to convince others that despite their bodies, they aren’t much different from normal people. She adores them with all her heart; this group of individuals brought together by a series of unlike circumstances. This group of people she now calls family.

So she tells Tsukiyama; of the soft-spoken but brave Mutsuki, the rough but dependable Shirazu, the arrogant but still kind of sensitive Urie. She tells him about the boys whom she now considers her brothers, who – with the usual exception of Urie -  spoils her despite their frequent protests about their mentor doing the same. She tells him that despite each of their flaws, they’re all courageous and strong in their own ways and she honestly admires them for that (don’t mention her saying any of that though). She also tells him of Hide; of his ability to fit into the group despite being the last one assigned to the squad, his constant cheeriness that brings life to the household. She describes his sunshiny personality, his knack for always seeming to be able to put her Maman at ease and therefore finally earning him the title ‘Papa’ from her.

And of course, she tells him about her Maman. Her Maman, who’s dedicated, kind, and perfect in every way. Who loves books and cooks delicious food for her as often as he can despite being exhausted from work. Who seems to  occasionally lack confidence in himself, who always tries hard to hide his insecurities so he wouldn’t worry someone else. Who loves puns and takes care of her better than anyone else.

Her Maman, who is a half-ghoul.

Saiko catches herself too late. She hadn’t meant to mention the last part. Unlike her own existence as a Quinx, Sasaki’s identity as a half-ghoul isn’t supposed to be publicised, even Saiko knows as much. If word spreads that the CCG is harbouring a half-ghoul as an investigator, things wouldn’t end well. Saiko’s aware of the precarious position her Maman is in. If the rumours do spread and a commotion is started, the CCG might just have no choice but to consider him as a ghoul and erase him one day and Saiko would lose the only Maman she has.

“Your Maman is an actual half-ghoul?” Tsukiyama asks before Saiko has the chance to take her words back. “You mean the CCG is actually producing half-ghouls to go against us?”

He sounds way too amused to Saiko’s liking. Then again, it does sound ironic; how an organisation that’s supposed to be completely anti-ghoul is using their enemy’s own kind against them. To the ghouls, it must look like nothing but an act of desperation, for the weak yet prideful humans to resort to something like this.

“The CCG isn’t exactly ‘producing’ half-ghouls, actually,” Saiko says, averting her gaze and fiddling with her fingers. “Unless you count in the Quinx.”

“Oh?” She shifts uneasily when she feels Tsukiyama’s stare boring into her. “Could you please elaborate on that, Saiko-san?”

“Maman is the only one,” Saiko says, reluctantly. “Even he can’t remember it well, but we’ve been told that he was the victim of a crazy scientist and he was turned against his.. will.”

Something suddenly clicks into place. Wait. Isn’t this story a little too familiar? Didn’t Tsukiyama tell her about a certain someone who went through the same thing just a few hours ago?

Can’t remember..” Tsukiyama mutters mostly to himself, rubbing his chin and gaze averted in thought. He must’ve noticed it too, judging from the look on his face. “No, it could just be a coincidence. He’s clearly gone – there was no way he could’ve survived and gone missing for so many years. But what if-“

Saiko flinches when Tsukiyama grabs her shoulders with both hands, eyes alight with excitement. “Little rabbit, describe your Maman further for me.”

“D-Describe further?” Should Saiko really do that? Even though she’s admittedly curious herself? “As in his appearance and all that?”

“Yes, all that!” Tsukiyama’s fingers dig into her skin, and she winces. Her reaction seems to jar the man back to his senses, and he releases his hold, quickly apologizing for his uncivilised manner. He leans back against his propped-up pillows and takes a deep breath, running his fingers through his hair. He definitely noticed it; how similar her Maman’s situation seems to be with that of Kaneki Ken’s. But how is it possible? Even Tsukiyama himself was sure that he’s dead. Things don’t quite add up.

“Maman is exactly one head taller than Saiko, and he has a lean but sturdy build,” Saiko begins carefully, trying to observe any changes in Tsukiyama’s expression as she speaks. “He has big grey eyes and slightly curly hair that’s white with some black at the roots. And he has a rinkaku kagune.”

Tsukiyama’s eyes are so wide by now that Saiko’s almost expecting them to pop out of his head any moment. Is it really true? Is Maman really who they think he is? Part of Saiko’s excited to find out. Another’s dreading the truth. If Sasaki really did go by another identity in the past, that would imply too many things, raise too many questions. Why did he forget? Why does he go by a different name now? How did he end up working under the CCG? What happened in between?

“Saiko-san.” It’s Tsukiyama who breaks the silence that has settled over them. “Do you think your Maman will be coming to look for you anytime soon?”

xXx

According to Hori Chie, the servants’ quarters are at the western wing of the ground floor, so the food storage should be towards the east side.

The thought of them actually locking Saiko up alone in a freezing storage room like some sort of fresh meat adds to Haise’s agitation and helps him focus on his main objective. However, being kept (possibly dead and in pieces) in the basement is only the worst case scenario. If Saiko’s fortunate enough, she should be held alive in one of the rooms in the ground floor. Not necessarily unharmed, but alive. And at this rate, that’s all Haise’s asking for.

Glancing around to make sure the coast’s clear, Haise darts out from his hiding spot behind a professionally trimmed bush, Hide tailing close behind him. The back entrance to Gourmet’s manor is near the kitchen around the servants’ quarters, hence they have no choice but to risk breaking in from the other side if they want to avoid as much confrontation as possible. Since the place is home to a bunch of ghouls, Hide pointed out the night before that there’s a chance that security might be a little lax – petty human thieves or the like would simply be welcomed as an easy meal or a quick snack. There might not even be alarms and security cameras installed if the master is confident enough about not having his home location discovered by ghoul investigators. Even so, there’s no harm in being careful.

As the two of them crouch under window after window to avoid being seen from the inside, Haise couldn’t help slightly regretting not bringing Shirazu or even Urie with them, despite it being against his ‘cleaning-up-own-mess’ principles. They could really use the boys’ sense of hearing and smell right about now. It would make their search for Saiko while trying to avoid conflict so much easier. As it is, Haise would just have to work extra hard.

They’re rapidly approaching the corner of the building, and Haise suddenly feels a sharp tap on his back. When he stops and glances over his shoulder, Hide points at the window ahead of them, mouthing his suggestion to enter the place through there. Mildly confused as to why Hide’s choosing this window out of all of them, Haise returns his gaze forward. It’s a good thing that he’s not short-sighted; otherwise he’d never be able to spot that slight misalignment between the two large glass panels from this distance. Then again, he probably wouldn’t be able to notice such a small detail even with perfect vision if Hide hadn’t mentioned. Haise sometimes forgot just how scarily observant he could be.

Haise creeps forward, tugging his gas mask over his nose as he strains his ears to listen for any sounds of activity. They would be using sleeping gas to knock out the servants they encounter (they’ll try to do it manually if they aren’t in a group), and because the gas is mixed in with a sort of highly volatile substance modeled after the sedative properties of Qoinque steel to reduce its release of smoke and increase its effectiveness against ghouls, inhaling any would be a bad idea. Haise certainly doesn’t fancy accidentally knocking himself out cold in the middle of a rescue mission - now that would just be embarrassing.

Haise peeks into the room past the very edge of the window, praying for it to be empty. It’s a small library of some sort (or is it a study? It kind of looks like something in between) and it is, to the boys’ relief, left unoccupied. Extremely careful not to make a sound, Haise eases the window open and swiftly climbs in once he has big enough of an opening, stepping on top of the desk propped against the wall right underneath him. As much as he tried, he couldn’t stop his inner bookworm from cringing at the way he’s probably leaving dirty footprints all over its pristine surface.

Bookshelves lined both sides of the room, leaving just enough space to move around comfortably without bumping into anything. Even though it’s relatively compact, the place gives off a peaceful, cozy atmosphere, and despite himself, Haise feels terrible for intruding. He gets off the desk and crosses to the door, ignoring his uninvited feeling of guilt. Now’s not the time for such futile things.

He has just placed his hand on the doorknob after checking if it’s locked (it isn’t) when he hears the sounds of footsteps from the corridor. He hastily catches Hide’s eyes, signaling the danger ahead. Hide takes one last glance outside the window before abandoning his post without question, moving to stand with him at a potential blind spot by the hinges of the door.

“Alone?” Hide whispers, and Haise nods, positive that he’d only heard a single person out there. Haise senses the tension rising as they both brace themselves for what they’re about to do. They’ll ambush the owner of those footsteps and demand for them to reveal where they’re keeping Saiko before leaving them unconscious. Rose had returned with a live person bearing the characteristics of a half-ghoul. There’s no way the news or even rumors wouldn’t have spread among the other servants. Unless they’re really ignorant to a sin, they’d have to know at least something.

Haise hears the person walk past their door, and just before he could to signal to Hide for them to burst out and drag them back into the room, there’s the sound of running, followed by a feminine voice asking the first fellow to wait up. Haise’s heart skips a beat. Crap. They’re practically holding their conversation right outside their door!  He hears Hide taking a large gulp behind him, equally anxious. This turn of events could either be their chance to eavesdrop for information, or it could be the moment they’re discovered. If given a choice, the both of them would really prefer the latter not to happen.

“What time are we supposed to bring food to Shuu-sama’s guest?” the newcomer asks the other, slightly breathless from her jog. Haise guesses the second person’s a senior servant or something similar, seeing how the former approaches them for schedule confirmations. More importantly – guest? Gourmet has a guest over? This could be troublesome.

“Matsumae didn’t mention anything, so I suppose the usual eight thirty should be appropriate enough,” the second voice replies, slightly deeper, but also feminine. There’s something unusual about her tone, Haise notices.

“What else do humans normally eat for breakfast, anyway?” the first voice inquires again, and Haise hears the sound of footsteps resuming. They’ve finally began to walk away. But wait – what do humans eat for breakfast? Gourmet has a human as a guest? It seems like a ridiculous idea, but could it be..?

“Just get her some bread from the convenience store again,” the second voice says, this time in something just short of a snap. The servant sighs in exasperation. “Really, I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Just two days ago Kanae was going all around proclaiming he’d  finally found the ingredient that could bring Shuu-sama back to his old self. And what happened? That human actually managed to charm her way to his interests!”

“But Shuu-sama really is feeling better because of her. I mean, how long has it been since he’d personally asked Kanae to bring him food?”

A ‘her’. The mystery guest is a ‘her’. Haise’s mind races. She was also brought here as food just recently. It could just be some crazy coincidence, but it could happen. Though Saiko could be slightly peculiar in  some ways to some people, she does have a sort of appeal to her. If there’s anyone who could amuse even a ghoul and win their attention, Haise figures it’s Saiko; with her unusual way of speech and unique attitude and lack of hostility.

Haise lets out a breath he doesn’t realize he’s holding once complete silence befalls them, willing his heartbeat to regain its normal rhythm. He then turns around to find Hide deep in thought, eyes trained at a spot on the floor.

“I think Saiko-chan’s probably on the upper stories,” he voices exactly what Haise’s thinking when he notices him staring at him, lips quirking into a lopsided smile. His expression is a strange mixture of amusement and pride; the two emotions Haise could understand very well at the moment. Saiko’s alive. She’d managed to hold out on her own for the past few days. She really isn’t as helpless as all of them believe.

And feeling at least three times more hopeful than he’d started off, Haise says; “We better get her before they wake her up for breakfast, then.”

xXx

Things started getting quite busy soon after the two boys left the mini-library.

There are a lot more servants bustling about along the main corridors, and Hide would never have expected just how tiring rendering a bunch of people unconscious with gas and making sure no one fled to alert others of their presence could be. Rather, it’s more of a mental exhaustion. Both he and Haise do not possess superhuman senses, hence it takes a ton of concentration simply to avoid inadvertently walking into one or a group of them. Their plan includes using their element of surprise to their full advantage, and blatantly showing themselves won’t exactly help increase their success rate.

It takes a while, but they eventually find a flight of stairs leading up that Hide guesses is the one mainly used by the servants, from how simple and hidden away it is. Hearing no sound of shoes thudding against the carpeted floor, the two of them proceed upwards, two steps at a time. Apart from the single unfortunate guy who had his hands full carrying a bunch of pillows (Hide wonders what’s the story behind that), they reach the second floor unchallenged.

And because a majority of the servants have yet to finish their chores on the ground floor, they would have been able to go on mostly undisturbed too, if someone hadn’t chosen to step out of one of the rooms the exact moment they enter the hallway and spot them before they could react. The world seems to come to a standstill as both parties process the sight of each other. That purple hair and overall appearance. After seeing his picture so many times he’s close to having nightmares of him, Hide would recognize the guy anywhere.

Standing there approximately ten meters ahead of them, eyes wide with disbelief and mouth slightly agape, is Purpleman.

Oh, sorry. Rose. Hide keeps deliberately forgetting that.

Retreating to the ground floor would cost them time, and they’re fresh out of sleeping gas (they hadn’t been able to bring many in the first place; carrying a bunch of canisters would hinder their movements besides making a lot of noise). The stairs leading to the upper floor isn’t within their proximity. Confronting him seems to be the only option.

“We’re not here to fight,” Haise steps forward and declares first of all, tugging down his mask to make his voice clear. Hide walks up beside him and takes off his own mask, mindful to keep some distance between them so they wouldn’t be getting in each other’s way if anything happens. “Just return our subordinate to us, and we’ll leave.”

“How did you-“ Rose stops short when his gaze settles on Hide. He sure doesn’t sound too worried about the two ghoul investigators standing before him. “You. You’re the one from the auction.”

“Oh, you were there when Nuts was trying dismantle me?” Hide shifts his footing, his thumb brushing across the knob on the handle of his briefcase. He doesn’t like the fact that the guy remembers him at all, even though he knows he’d obviously stood out during his one-sided battle with the Nutcracker.

“And that Duft.” The way the ghoul’s expression promptly darkens when he recognizes Haise scent is nothing less than terrifying. His mouth twists into a snarl, and black clouds his eyes until his kakugan are fully formed, red irises blazing with fury. Suddenly, Hide’s certain that he doesn’t even see them as mere intruders to his master’s home anymore. “You’re..!”

Haise raises Yukimura just in time to block Rose’s frontal blow, staggering from the impact.

SASAKI HAISE!!” The ghoul rages, so loudly that Hide figures the entire manor probably heard him. “You’re the one who..! It’s your fault that Shuu-sama..!”

Hide activates his Quinque and he’s just about to jump in to assist when Haise yells at him to stop, his voice tight with strain.

“Go look for Saiko-chan!” he says, deflecting Rose’s next attack before kicking out and sending the ghoul flying backwards. Right. Hide sometimes forgot about Haise’s immense strength. “He’s only focused on me. I’ll hold him off and buy us some time.”

Before Hide could even open his mouth to argue, he rushes forward and engages in battle once more, pushing Rose further and further back. As much as Hide wants to help, he knows Haise’s decision is right. Their top priority is to find Saiko. Besides, in such a cramped up space in an unfamiliar location, Hide figures he’d only be in the way if he joins in the battle. Haise’s strong. He  should be able to hold out long enough for Hide to retrieve Saiko and get out of there.

Or at least he hopes so.

Hide balls his fists, and forcing himself to look away from Haise’s fight, he turns to the side, and opens the first door.

xXx

Saiko wakes to the chaotic sounds of a struggle.

She’d slept lightly; something she herself honestly never thought she’d be able to do until then. Anyhow, that’s not important. Saiko sits up, her heart hammering against her ribcage. The ruckus seems to be coming from the upper floor. Is that Maman and the others? Have they found her already? Saiko squeezes her eyes shut and focuses on her hearing. What’s going on up there?

With some effort, she’s able to make out the sounds of kagune clashing against Quinque steel, the uneven patter of feet. The cracking of concrete walls. The screaming for Sasaki Haise to die.

Saiko’s eyes snap open. Her Maman’s here! And he’s occupied in combat with Kanae who sounds like he has a sort of personal grudge against him. Is he the only one? Did he come alone? She has to find him! She has to let Maman know that she’s okay!

Saiko practically leaps off the bed and runs to the door, soon discovering that it’s once again locked. She slams her fists repeatedly against the wooden panel, yelling for someone to let her out. She can’t stay in there, not now. Not now. She has to find Maman. She has to tell him that it’s not Tsukiyama’s fault that she’s there and ask for him not to hurt him, please. Before it’s too late.

It feels like forever has passed and no one seems to notice her still. Frustrated, Saiko steps back, deciding that she has no other choice. Tsukiyama can no doubt afford to fix a single door. She’s in a hurry. Her kagune bursts out from her lower back, and she concentrates, aiming the appendages towards a certain point. If no one’s letting her out, she’ll just have to break her way out, just like her initial plans.

Saiko inhales once, then using all her strength in one strike, she opens a gaping hole where the handle used to be with her kagune and pulls, nearly ripping the entire panel from its hinges by accident. Whoops. She can never get used to just how much force her kagune can exert - though it does sap a lot of her energy to use the amount she’d just used. Saiko spares herself a minute to retract her kagune and catch her breath before steeling herself and scampering out, once again relying on her ears to direct her towards her Maman’s fight.

She has no sooner stepped into the corridor when someone grabs her wrist, halting her in her tracks. Saiko whirls around, actually ready to fight out of this if she needs to when she hears a familiar voice call her name.

“Saiko-chan, calm down. It’s me.”

Saiko has never been happier to see Hide in her life. But most of her mind is still occupied by the fact that Haise’s still engaged in a battle with Kanae and he might be in danger and-

“Maman is-“ she says, her voice beginning to tremble from the overwhelming fear and worry that abruptly sinks in. “Maman is-“

“Fighting, yes,” Hide helps her finish. His own voice, despite gentle, is tinged with anxiety. “Don’t worry, we’re going to look for him now and get out of here. You did a great job, breaking down that door yourself. I would never have found you if it wasn’t for the noise.”

“They’re getting closer towards Tsukiyama-san’s room,” Saiko gasps when realization hits her out of the blue, barely paying any attention to Hide’s last two sentences. The direction where the din is heading - that side of the manor is where the ghoul’s room is, Saiko remembers. That’s where she’d been led down from the night before.

Who’s room?” Hide asks, confused. Unfortunately, it’s not the time for Saiko to explain. She clutches Hide’s hand with both her own, her heart beating miles per minute.

“Please, Hide-san. We have to find Maman!” she says, with so much desperation that she surprises even herself. “We have to.”

“Can you determine where Haise is?” Hide asks again after a short pause, and Saiko nods fervently. Hide then smiles, though a slight furrow remains on his brow.

“Take us there then, Saiko-chan.”

Wasting not a second more, Saiko does just that.

xXx

Haise has no idea what he’d done to offend the guy, and sadly, it seems like he won’t have a chance to find out.

Rose is not only strong (as if that’s not bad enough by itself), he’s aggressive. Haise had somehow managed to switch positions with him to lead him away from Hide so the blond could search for Saiko in the second floor, and he’s now almost fully on the defensive once he has successfully lured the ghoul one floor higher. Rose’s barrage of attacks made it incredibly difficult for Haise to find an opening to counter. As much he would like to settle this without any combat, he has no choice but to fight back if he wants to survive against Rose’s intense bloodlust.

Haise’s arms ache dully as he blocks yet another blow. Rose’s style of fighting consists of using his kagune as some sort of sword by coiling it around his arm - a style Haise finds strangely familiar. Though his defense shouldn’t be too strong since he’s a rinkaku user, the brute force of his slashes and stabs alone are enough to make up for it. The fact that he fights without relying solely on his kagune doesn’t make anything better. Haise could only hope for Yukimura to be able to hold out until their retreat.

Well, at least there doesn’t seem to be other servants trying to gang up on him. He figures Rose is making it pretty clear that he’s his target alone. 

“Die, you damned pig!!” Rose screeches at him for the umpteenth time since he started attacking him, and Haise can’t help but feel slightly annoyed by his variety of occasionally German-laced insults. He could at least tell him why he hates him so much and wants him to die the moment he laid eyes on him. Rose blames him for doing something to ‘Shuu-sama’, he gets that much, but he doesn’t even know a person with the name ‘Shuu’. What the hell is the guy’s problem? Geez.

Luckily for him, the ghoul doesn’t have an endless amount of stamina, and he gradually begins to tire out; his movements slowing down, his blows losing their force. Haise soon spots an opening and uses the chance to strike back, slashing a wide arc across the area in front of him with his Quinque. His reaction a little slowed from fatigue, Rose backs away a second too late, and Haise manages to put a deep cut across his torso.

And he would’ve felt more satisfied with his achievement too, if he hadn’t accidentally provoked Rose even more by doing that.

“You.. You insolent hybrid!” Rose fumes, not at all bothered by the blood gushing out his midsection. “You dare lay a hand on me when you’re just a worthless piece of trash!”

Well someone has an outrageously high regard towards himself. And he was the one who’d started this nonsense in the first place. Haise couldn’t believe him. Even his patience has its limits, and being called rude names by a stranger who for some unfathomable reason wants him dead irks him more than he wants to admit. Haise wills Hide to hurry up and find Saiko so they can finish their job and make their retreat before he seriously loses his temper and end up refusing to leave until he slaps some sense into the guy.

Anger made Rose’s following attacks reckless, enabling Haise to find more vulnerabilities in his form. However, because he’s refraining from going all-out, Haise’s still slowly forced back by the ghoul’s continuous onslaught. Despite the voice that’s persistently urging him to simply finish Rose off and save himself the trouble, Haise stubbornly sticks to the objective of their plans. He’s only here to rescue Saiko, not kill ghouls.

Haise finally backs against a something solid, and a quick glance behind lets him realize that he’s braced against a door. Rose is already lunging towards him before he could properly consider his options, and he ducks out of the way, his body moving on instinct. Still stooped low, he takes one step forward and circles his free arm around the ghoul’s outstretched one, and using the latter’s own momentum, he twists, flipping him over his shoulder and towards the door behind him, sending him crashing right through the thick panel of wood.

While Rose is still dazed, Haise uses the chance to backtrack and put some distance between them. Hide should’ve found Saiko by now. They should be making their escape any minute now-

Haise has crossed maybe five meters when a single vine-like appendage bursts out from the wall nearest to him and catches him off guard, piercing deep into his side. Haise bites back a cry of pain and surprise. Rose detached his kagune and trapped the wall!? Is that even possible? Clenching his teeth, Haise pulls himself free and stumbles, using his Quinque as support while his other hand reaches to press against his gaping wound. The appendage had just barely missed puncturing his lung. Blood wells up in his mouth and he coughs, gasping for breath amid the mist of pain. This is bad. When did Rose have the chance to even do that? How many more traps did he lay around the place?

Maman!

Haise looks up and ahead in horror. “No! Don’t come any closer!”

Time seems to slow down as he watches Hide yank Saiko back just as another appendage explodes from the floor by her feet and nearly stabs right through her. Saiko’s eyes are wide as saucers and wilder than Haise has ever seen them, but she’s struggling out of Hide’s grip and running straight towards him the second she recovers from her shock, completely unbothered by the risk of being potentially assaulted by more traps. Haise thinks his heart must’ve stopped on at least five separate occasions by the time she reaches him unharmed, Hide following close after her.    

“Maman, you’re bleeding!” she frets the moment she pulls back from giving him a quick, tight hug around his waist. Suppressing a wince, Haise moves to pat her head and assures her that he’ll heal from it, don’t worry. He gives Saiko a once-over and sighs in relief when he sees that apart from a few scratches here and there, she’s mostly unhurt.

“Haise,” Hide interrupts with a single warning call of his name, his gaze focused towards where Haise had left his struggle with Rose. Quickly coming to an understanding, Haise straightens and turns around, keeping Saiko protectively behind him. The ghoul has gotten up, and he’s now carefully stepping over the wreckage of the broken door. With a start, Haise notices that his kakugan are no longer active; though he’s still glaring at him - probably with the hopes that it’s enough to kill him.

“Sasaki Haise,” he says, just a little short of a spit. With his clothes ruined and his hair in disarray, Haise’s impressed he could still make himself look even the slightest bit haughty. “I am aware that this is uncalled for after all that conflict between us, but it seems that my master fancies having a talk with you in his room.”

Haise could only stare at him, utterly bewildered. He must be crazy to think he’ll actually listen to him and accept the invitation when he was just trying his best to kill him a few minutes ago. If the servant himself has so many issues, Haise isn’t sure he’d want to know what sort of person Gourmet is. He’d rather decline the offer and go home now, to be frank.

“Maman, it’s okay.” Unexpectedly, it’s Saiko who reassures him. “He’s not a bad guy. He promised Saiko he wouldn’t hurt you.”

What?” Haise’s still pretty much failing to process the entire situation. Is she referring to the Gourmet? Gourmet promised Saiko not to hurt him? Does this mean the ghoul knows about him? Well, Rose does so there’s always a possibility. But still.

“Saiko-chan, you sure about this?” Hide asks, rightfully doubtful because the entire situation seriously isn’t making any sense. He glances warily at Rose at the end of the corridor. “I mean - I don’t think you’d need a reminder, but his servant did try to skewer you and Haise a moment ago.”

“Tsukiyama-san’s my friend,” Saiko insists, and Haise’s breath hitches at the name. Tsukiyama..? “He would never want to deliberately hurt Maman and me.”

“Wait, wait.” Haise holds up his hand and does a mental rewind. “You said he promised you - you told him I’d meet him?”

He hadn’t meant to sound so incredulous and end up putting that look of guilt on Saiko’s face, but he’s simply too overwhelmed by the sudden twist in their situation. What exactly is going on?

“Please, Maman,” Saiko begs, tugging at his arm. “He’s the reason I’m still alive here. He’s in a really bad shape and you can help him!”

Haise really doesn’t see how he can do anything about a person he’s sure he’d only seen in his dreams, but the urgency in Saiko’s voice is genuine, and very reluctantly, he relents. Hide’s objection is immediate.

“I’ll be alright, Hide,” Haise tells him, trying to not to let his hesitation show. “He hasn’t done anything to Saiko-chan and he has her trust. It’ll be fine.”

“Then I’m going in with you,” Hide says, obstinate. He turns to Rose and adds before Haise could protest; “Either we go in a group, or we don’t go at all. You have my word as a ghoul investigator that I won’t harm your master, so long as he doesn’t threaten us first.”

Rose looks ready to scorn at their request (because really, they’re not in the position to make any demands) when Haise hears a faint voice speak to the ghoul from within the room, its volume making the words unintelligible to him. Gourmet must’ve told Rose something he didn’t want to hear, for the scowl he wears when he turns back to them is so fierce that his face turns the color of beetroot.

“Very well,” Rose says tersely, practically hissing out every word. The boys revert their Quinque back to their briefcase forms and start towards the entrance to Gourmet’s room, keeping Saiko securely between them and eyeing the servant ghoul cautiously as they walk past him, watching for any further signs of hostility besides his intense glower. His loyalty to his master is apparently the real deal, because he lets them through without as much as a budge.

All along, Haise considers his own room to be pretty big and luxurious, especially in Japanese standards. This place is at least two times bigger than his room, perhaps even three. The curtains are all drawn except for one, allowing only a small patch of sunlight to enter and ward off the dark. Once they’ve stepped through the doorway and everything seems to be safe enough, Saiko breaks away from her superiors’ side and heads towards the unusually large bed at the center of the room. Seeing her so at ease despite being around a ghoul helps Haise relax a little bit.

“Tsukiyama-san,” she says as Haise walks over so the occupant of the bed can look at him properly as they converse. Hide stays behind and lingers a little further away from them, away from the ghoul’s line of sight. “This is Saiko’s Maman.”

Haise studies the ghoul known as the Gourmet, taking in his weary features and haggard physique. His slightly sunken eyes and cheeks, sagged shoulders and the way he has to sit up with the support of pillows. He looks almost nothing like his picture in the CCG’s records and the image of him in Haise’s dreams, yet the insistent sense of recognition at the sight of him is still present, and that’s enough to let Haise know that they’re the same person.  

There is a moment of silence in which Haise isn’t sure what he should do. Should he introduce himself? Thank him for sparing Saiko? Complain about his servant’s lack of hospitality? He doesn’t get the opportunity to do any of that in the end because Tsukiyama motions for him to go closer and he does, coming to a stop right next to Saiko by his bedside.

Haise nearly flinches when Tsukiyama suddenly reaches out and clamps his hands around his forearms. “You.. You are Kaneki-kun, are you not?”

Haise can’t decide which is he more rattled by; the unexpected mention of the name or the tears currently streaming down Tsukiyama’s face. He stares at the ghoul’s eyes; so full of fragile hope; and feels a twinge of pain in his chest. He feels utterly terrible for what he’s about to answer with because no, not even a ghoul should look like that; so disconsolate and desperate for a reply that will finally save him from the pit of despair he’s been trapped within since god knows when. Because no, he’s not who he says he is.

“I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong person, Tsukiyama-san,” Haise says, as gently as he can. Huh. That’s weird. His chest really is starting to hurt a bit now. “My name is Sasaki Haise.”

“But that can’t be,” Tsukiyama insists half frantically, his grip tightening. “You look and sound exactly like him. Even the scent of your blood and the way you say my name. I can’t be mistaken! You have to be him!”

“I’m so sorry, Tsukiyama-san,” Haise apologizes once more, meaning it with all his heart. His fingers twitch slightly as he goes on. “But I’m not.”

“Are.. you telling the truth?” The way Tsukiyama’s face falls is so painful that Haise’s almost forced to look away. “You don’t remember? Anything at all?”

It’s strange, how unperturbed he is by the sudden question and its nature. He doesn’t even ask how he knows. Haise merely takes a breath, and shakes his head slowly. “I don’t. I’m sorry.”

I’m so, so sorry. For everything.

Haise averts his gaze while he waits for Tsukiyama to let his words sink in, weighed upon by the strangest sense of guilt. Saiko had claimed that he’s the one who can help him recover from his current pitiful condition. Now that Haise thinks of it, could he be the reason for it in the first place? Could he have known Tsukiyama once? Is that why some part of him is apologizing over and over again? Is that why he’s been seeing glimpses of him in his dreams? Is that why he’s feeling so incredibly remorseful for a reason he can’t fathom?

He doesn’t know. His head hurts. 

“I see,” Tsukiyama finally says, slackening his hold on Haise’s arms. It’s only after he lets go of him that Haise registers the numbness of his own hands. “So things have ended up like this.”

Tsukiyama laughs a short, hollow laugh and reaches to dry his eyes, his voice still tremulous. There’s nothing Haise could say to that, so all he does is purse his lips and try not to let his feeling of guilt eat away at him.

“Alright. That’s all I want to hear,” Tsukiyama continues, removing his hands from his face and letting them fall back to his sides. His eyes are red, and so, so tired. Almost wryly, he adds; “I suppose you’d want to exterminate me now, since I’m partly responsible for the abduction of your subordinate.”

And at that, Saiko gasps and immediately latches on to Haise’s shirt, pleading; “Maman, don’t!”

Haise looks down at his subordinate, surprised by her outburst. He sees the honest dread across her features, and remembers the utter resignation in Tsukiyama’s gaze when he told him he’s not who he thinks he is. No, he can’t do it. He can’t kill him even if he wants to. He can’t take his life, he just can’t.

“You’ve spared Saiko-chan’s life,” Haise says once he’s able to find the right words as well as the courage to meet the ghoul’s gaze. “And I personally owe you for that, Tsukiyama-san. Besides,” he tries for a small shrug, “the purpose of our mission isn’t to erase you in the first place. I’m not obliged to harm you.”

“That’s a relief to know, then,” Tsukiyama exhales, actually sounding like he’s meaning it. He then leans forward slightly to catch Saiko’s eyes, and adds soothingly; “Do not look so grieved, little rabbit. This won’t be our final goodbye. We’re friends. We’ll surely meet again in the future.”

“You promise you’ll do your best to recover and start going outside again?” Saiko asks, her voice quavering dangerously. Haise realizes anew just how attached Saiko has grown towards the ghoul over the past couple of days - to the point where they’re calling each other friends and promising to meet each other again despite their respective circumstances. Whether or not it’s a good thing, he has yet to decide.

“I will try my best,” Tsukiyama promises with a subtle nod, gaze briefly flickering towards Haise’s direction.

Haise watches as Saiko firmly returns the nod before moving to rummage for something in the drawer of the nightstand. She soon pulls out a small notepad and a pen, and proceeds to scribble something down.

“Here’s Saiko’s email address.” She rips off the page and places the piece of paper under a glass. “Contact me anytime you want, okay?”

“I’ll do that,” Tsukiyama says with a small, but undeniably fond smile. He then faces Haise once more. “Saiko-san’s a good girl. Take good care of her, Sasaki-kun.”

Honestly, Haise thinks he wouldn’t want to let Saiko out of his sight for at least another two weeks. “I will.”

“Kanae will show you the way out,” Tsukiyama says, and Haise mutters his thanks, preparing to leave and trying not to feel like he’s abandoning the ghoul for a second time. It’s not like he’d even done so the first time, right? “It’s been a pleasure meeting the both of you.”

“Bye-bye, Tsukiyama-san,” Saiko says one last time before following Haise to regroup with Hide. Hide’s stare remain focused towards what’s visible of Tsukiyama’s figure from his perspective even as they walk up to him, his eyebrows knitted and the corners of his mouth slightly downturned.

“Hide?” It’s only when Haise speaks that Hide tears his gaze away from the ghoul to look at them, all traces of his frown disappearing from his features in an instant.

“Done?” he asks, an odd ring to his voice. He sounds.. tensed? Cautious? With his own current state of mind, Haise can’t exactly be sure. He decides to let it be for now.

“Yeah,” Haise breathes, and slowly, he allows a small smile of relief to play across his lips. Saiko’s safe. They’ve done what they had to do. Their morning is finally over. “Let’s get Saiko-chan home.”

Chapter Text

Honestly, Hide was this close to freaking out when Gourmet mentioned Kaneki’s name out of the blue like that.

Hori Chie’s real objectives were suddenly so clear. She knew Haise used to be Kaneki. She knew Tsukiyama was associated to Kaneki somehow. And from everything he’d heard and seen, perhaps she even knew that Kaneki was the reason for Tsukiyama's depression in the first place, which is why she’d insisted on Haise having a role in Saiko’s rescue; to see if his (re)appearance would affect Tsukiyama in any way.  

Hide isn’t going to lie; when he heard Tsukiyama say Kaneki’s name, he’d considered literally jumping in to intervene and even silencing the ghoul and risk fighting his servant to the death if he has to. Haise can’t remember, mustn’t remember. Hide has gone against his own emotions and done everything he could to make sure it stays that way, and he wasn’t going to let a single ghoul ruin everything. He wasn’t going to let a single ghoul be the reason why he’s going to lose his best friend all over again.

But Haise hadn’t recalled a thing. Hadn’t bent over and clutched his head in pain, hadn’t went berserk while screaming for an invisible person to shut up, shut up, shut up. And Hide, despite his own deepest desires, had felt relieved. Relieved because he wouldn’t have to see him hurting so much once again. Relieved because Haise hadn’t remembered what he’s not allowed to remember.

Relieved because a ghoul Kaneki had probably met only after distancing away from him hadn’t be able to trigger any recollection any more than he, his best friend since forever, could have.

If, by some chance, Tsukiyama truly did prompt a memory from Haise, Hide really doesn’t know what he should feel. Distressed because the return of a single memory would possibly encourage the rest to come back? Hopeful because it would mean that there’s a chance for him to have his best friend back? Or jealous because why had a ghoul he’d met for a mere few months been able to make him remember and not him? Hide doesn’t know. Maybe it’d be a mixture of all of those. A disgusting brew of contradicting emotions.

Hide takes in a deep breath, and exhales slowly. He’s been doing this a lot throughout the entire journey home, he realizes with a blanch. He’d barely breathed throughout Haise’s entire conversation with the Gourmet, and it seems as if those few minutes of resisting his body mechanism had caused him to forget how to resume completely. The muscles on his shoulders still feel taut and his heart refuses to calm down even though they’re already halfway home.

“Hide?” Haise’s voice jerks Hide out of his thoughts, and it’s only then that he registers the sting on his lower lip. Whoops. He’s been chewing on his lip, hasn’t he? He must’ve been doing it pretty hard too, since he tastes blood when he flicks his tongue over the spot that’s smarting.

“Ahh, I’m okay!” he says before Haise has the chance to ask, hastily pulling on a sheepish smile. He already feels the tingle that indicates his regeneration kicking in. Pretty soon he’d be good as new again.

“You’ve been really tensed even before we left,” Haise says in a whisper, mindful not to wake Saiko who’d nodded off from sheer exhaustion by his other side. Hide can’t blame her. The entire ordeal must’ve worn her out, and he has to admit that the constant hum of the car engine is quite lulling. Not to mention their driver isn’t exactly the chatty type and the entire vehicle is silent as it can be. “You sure you’re alright?”

“Just thinking about some stuff,” Hide dismisses, scratching his cheek. Haise doesn’t look convinced at all, so he quickly adds, “What about you? Does your wound hurt or anything? You were bleeding a lot when we found you.”

Haise’s obviously still not quite willing to let the matter go just yet, but Hide figures his silent plea must’ve shown on his face. Reluctantly, Haise answers, “It’s fine now. It doesn’t hurt at all.”

“That’s great, then,” Hide grins, then suddenly feeling like he can longer find the courage to look his companion in the eye, he averts his gaze. “That’s.. great.”

He was scared. He gets it now. Listening to that conversation and having the topic of Haise’s memories simply brought up like it’s no big deal - it’d thrown him off balance. It made him wonder if that was it, that’s the moment everything goes downhill. If that’s the moment he has to start preparing emotionally for the inevitable. If that’s the moment he has to let go of his everything all over again.

And perhaps, he was a little angry, too. Especially at how Tsukiyama had just thrown Kaneki’s name out there without knowing the potential consequences of his actions. And also at himself for subconsciously hoping that Haise would say yes, he’s starting to remember bits and pieces.

A disgusting brew of contradicting emotions. Yeah, that pretty much sums up Hide’s entire existence since a couple of years ago. A huge mess, he’d become.

A hand envelopes his own on his lap, and he flinches, having not expected the contact. Haise’s hand is warm. Or maybe it’s just his that’s freezing, Hide isn’t sure. Taking yet another deep breath, he tentatively glances to his side once more, meeting Haise’s concerned gaze. Haise gives his hand a light squeeze, not saying a thing. Doesn’t have to. Hide has known him long enough to understand him without the need of words.

Hide’s mind is a muddled mess, yes, but as he continues staring at those grey, grey eyes, a single clear thought surfaces, and all of the sudden, it’s all he could do simply to hold himself back from flipping his hand over and lacing his fingers tightly with Haise’s and never letting go.

Because no matter what, more than anything, he just can’t bear the thought of losing him again.

xXx

“Hey, I’ve been wanting to ask you guys this for a while now, but don’t you think something weird’s going on?”

Shirazu averts his gaze from the ceiling to focus on his teammates gathered loosely around him. They’re cooped up in the office assigned to them in the CCG’s main building on yet another lazy afternoon several days after completing their latest mission. Urie’s occupying the seat furthest away from Shirazu with his earphones on and Saiko’s caught up with her game on her DS. The only one who seems to have heard him is Mutsuki, who, looks up from the piece of paper he’s reading and raises his eyebrows at him.

“About what?” he asks, mostly out of politeness. Shirazu tries not to be too mad at the other two for ignoring him. It’s a normal occurrence, really.

“It’s Sassan and Hide-san,” Shirazu says, dropping his voice and glancing warily towards the door just in case the mentioned duo magically reappears from the meeting they’d just gone out to attend roughly ten minutes ago. “I don’t know, but it kinda seems like-“

“They’re dating,” Saiko interjects, in all solemnity. She only looks up when she receives nothing but stunned silence, eyes wide in disbelief. “What do you mean they’re not?

“What do you mean they are?” Shirazu demands incredulously once he rediscovers his coherency. He then takes a deep breath, and forces himself to calm down, running a hand across his face. Saiko’s nonsense are not worth getting worked up over.

“They’re already sharing the same room, Shiragin,” Saiko tells him with a few clicks of her tongue, wagging a finger at him. Shirazu doesn’t like that smug look of triumph she’s wearing already. “I’m surprised we’re not hearing anything at night yet.”

“You do know that this isn’t another one of your stupid games, right?” Shirazu sighs, unable to find the will to argue with the girl. Sometimes, he seriously wondered if Saiko had a sense of reality to begin with. He’s heard of her befriending the ghoul who’s supposed to eat her, and though he’s grudgingly impressed that she’s able to keep herself alive that way, it still seems pretty ridiculous to him. Friendship between a ghoul investigator and a ghoul? That’s bound not to work out eventually.

Of course, Sassan’s an exception to that rule, but whatever.

“You’re the only one who’s blind to it all,” Saiko says, unaffected by his indirect insult towards her hobbies. She points her stylus towards the taller boy and tilts her head slightly to the side. “Have you even seen the way they act around each other?”

“Well, now that you mention it,” Mutsuki speaks up unexpectedly, pink dusted across his cheeks. He seems like he can’t decide whether to feel intrigued or embarrassed by the entire topic. “They do seem to be getting quite close.”

“Not you too, Tooru,” Shirazu groans, slumping further down his chair. “I can’t believe I’m saying this - but come on, Urie. Back me up here! This isn’t what I was trying ask!”

To no one’s surprise, Urie outright refuses to even acknowledge the fact that he’d been spoken to.

“Then again, Saiko can’t blame you,” Saiko goes on as if Shirazu hadn’t said a thing, folding her DS before crossing her arms and nodding sagely to herself. “You’ve never been in love, so it’s only normal for you to be ignorant.”

“As if you’ve been in love before!” Shirazu snaps, managing to control the volume of his voice just before he starts shouting. This time, Saiko shoots him an offended look.

“I’ve observed enough to at least know more than you,” she says, and Shirazu gives up. There’s no use trying to change her mind. They could go on for hours, and they’ll still end up back where they’d started. Let her believe what she wants to believe.

But really. Could Sassan and Hide-san be dating? As much as Shirazu wants to rule out the possibility, he can’t. Romance isn’t exactly his specialty, but Saiko’s wrong and he has seen how those two are around each other. Even he notices how much happier Sassan genuinely seems after Hide joined them, how much comfort the blond brings to their mentor just by being there. How those two are always doing things together these days and how much they confide in each other when making decisions and the like. Shirazu had chalked it all up as some sort of broship all this while, but could Saiko actually be on to something? Are they actually going out without their knowledge?  

“Anyway.” Shirazu clears his throat, remembering the question he’s supposed to be voicing. He makes up his mind not to pursue the thought any further - though, he would be pretty miffed if something so big is to happen and he’s not at all informed about it. “What I was trying say is, don’t you guys think they’re, like, I don’t know - hiding something? Especially Hide-san?”

“Sensei’s always not telling us a lot of things, so there’s nothing unusual there,” Mutsuki says with a small grimace. “Hide-san most likely has his reasons as well, so I think we shouldn’t pry into it as long as-”

 “Hmm? What’s that about me?”

The entire squad flinches at the sound of their blond superior’s voice, chipper as always. Hide nonchalantly saunters in, glancing  around in curiosity, his eyebrows raised. How long has he been there and how much did he hear?

“We’re just trying to figure out if you’re dating Maman,” Saiko says straightforwardly, and Shirazu nearly yells at her because what does she think she’s doing? Admitting that they’re having suspicions about him would’ve been a better response than to blurt that out! It’s awkward as hell and Shirazu’s not sure he can ever look his superior in the eye again after this. Mutsuki already looks like he’s considering fading into his chair.

However, in contrast to the younger boys’ agitation, Hide doesn’t look particularly affected by the statement.

“Ehh. Do you want me to date Haise?” Hide asks with a light laugh, retrieving a folder from the cabinet behind his desk. He freezes when he straightens up and notices everyone in the room staring at him. “Um, should I not have said that?”

“H-Hide-san, don’t you need to hurry back to your meeting or something?” Shirazu hastily speaks up in a desperate attempt to change the topic. Hide shoots him a strange look, but just as Shirazu’s expecting him to say something, he shrugs indifferently, and heads to the exit. He does need to hurry back, apparently.

“By the way, don’t you kids have more important things to do than to gossip around all day?” he looks over his shoulder and says just before he walks out of the door, his tone still casual. Still not giving any indication that he’d heard the earlier part of their conversation. “I’m pretty sure there’s still some documents that need some sorting out. Better get them done in case Akira-san walks in or something, yeah?”

And with that happy thought, he leaves, mumbling something about the beauties of youth to himself as he goes. Shirazu doesn’t relax until he hears the blond’s footsteps disappear completely, exhaling a loud breath before turning to glare at Saiko.

“They are not dating,” he says, annoyed at how displeased he sounds at the statement.

“Not yet,” Saiko corrects, moving to resume playing with her game console. Shirazu rolls his eyes, totally losing all motivation to keep up their discussion any further. Tooru’s right. He shouldn’t care too much about his superiors’ secrets as long as they don’t directly affect them. It’s probably for their own good that they don’t know, too. Without another word, Shirazu fixes his posture and wheels his chair back towards his desk, submitting to the reminder that no matter how little, he still has work to do.

He’s halfway through his task of rearranging a report on some random ghoul attack from another Ward when he belatedly realizes how Saiko had become more subdued as soon as he brought up the topic of Sasaki and Hide’s secrecy. It’s likely that she’s noticed it too; she was there during those instances which had raised Shirazu’s doubts. Though, it is pretty unusual that she’s bothered by matters unrelated to her nerdy hobbies. Maybe the entire thing is more serious than Shirazu thinks.

But you know what, he should really stop dwelling on this.

xXx

“Come to think of it, it seems that the kids want me to ask you out.”

Hide grins when Haise nearly spits his coffee upon registering his words.

“I’m sorry?” Haise splutters once he manages to swallow his beverage, blood rushing to his face. Hide breaks into a laugh at the sight of him, but the mirth fades quicker than he would’ve preferred. Dating.. huh? Funny how something he could easily bring up during his earlier days could seem so out of reach right then. He couldn’t believe how much simpler life used to be; dating was just a matter of asking the person you liked out. There are too many things to work out now; too many things to think about, too many things to be distracted over.

“Or, at least they made the implication,” Hide adds with as much mischief as he can muster, chin still balanced on his upturned palm. Haise looks ready to throw his mug at him for teasing him like that, and while he should really start worrying about his wellbeing, Hide only feels ridiculously amused. It’s been a while since he’s able to tease him on this whole dating thing. In fact, he never thought he’d be able to bring up the subject ever again, especially not as casually as this.

You should try choking on coffee one day,” Haise grumbles after making a considerable recovery, lips set in a small pout and cheeks slightly puffed out as he takes a seat on the chair next to the blond. Hide snickers his apology, but otherwise says nothing else as he observes his companion’s profile while he takes another sip of his drink. Haise notices him staring out of the corner of his eye after a while, and he raises an eyebrow. “What?”

The way he tries so hard to sound angry when he’s obviously not makes Hide smile even wider.

Nothinggg,” he sing-songs, heart fluttering when the corners of Haise’s lips lift by the slightest. “Just thinking how it’s already been a little more than a month since we met.”

“It feels like we’ve known each other longer than that, huh?” Haise says softly, gaze settling back on his mug.

“It does,” Hide agrees, hoping he doesn’t sound as somber as he feels because yes, they’ve known each other much longer than that and he can’t ever tell him that. He lets a minute of silence settle over them before slowly moving to stand up. “And as much as I want to stay here and chat for the rest of the night, I just remembered that there’s something I need to do before Akira-san whoops my ass tomorrow.”

“Better go ahead and get it done then,” Haise says, all too familiar with their superior’s ability to kick their butt. Hide nods, turning to make his way towards his room. Having something to do isn’t completely an excuse on his part. There really is something Akira wanted him to work on, and Hide has to come up with a solution for it before presenting it to her when he goes to work the next morning.

He’s expecting another long night, but at least his thoughts will be too occupied most of the time to wander around.

Hide pauses in his steps and blinks in confusion when he sees a figure waiting for him outside his room, huddled on the floor with her back leaned against the wall right next to the doorframe. Saiko? What is she doing here? It’s getting quite late and she’s usually in her room even earlier than the rest of her squad.

“Papa,” Saiko looks up and acknowledges once she hears Hide approaching her, shutting her console. She gets on her feet, hesitating for a split second before asking, “Do you have the time to talk?”

She’s been waiting for him in the cold for who-knows how long. Even if it’s sudden, there isn’t a reason for Hide to say no. Heck, he can’t even say no if he wants to. It’s against his nature to be that heartless. A few minutes wouldn’t hurt.

“Of course,” he says lightly, then moving to open the door to his room and turning on the lights. “But first things first, come on in. You can use my blanket to warm up.”

Saiko accepts his invitation without another word, slipping her DS into her pocket and shuffling into his bedroom. In a few minutes, they’re sitting next to each other on Hide’s bed; Saiko bundled up under his heater-blanket and looking so cozy that Hide can’t help but feel a little jealous, despite himself. Must be nice to be surrounded by warmth in this freezing temperature.

Also, he’s lucky that he’d brought his blanket down from Haise’s room earlier because he knew it’d be a while before he can join him upstairs and the night’s only going to get colder. It’d be more than a little awkward to explain the situation to Saiko if she asks about it, even though there’s really nothing going on. He and Haise are just keeping each other company. That’s it. Simple as that.

It sounds like a stupid excuse even in his head.

“So what is it that you want to talk about?” Hide prompts after a short lapse of silence from Saiko. From the firmness of her gaze when she turns to meet his eyes, he could tell that she’s being uncharacteristically serious for once.

“Maman isn’t really who we think he is, is he?” she asks right off, taking Hide by so much surprise that he falters before he could control himself. He knows the Quinx are aware of him keeping things from them - they’re not stupid - but they shouldn’t know the details. No, Saiko can’t have found out about this. Nobody could’ve told her. She shouldn’t even have the suspicion in the first place! How did this-

Is he?” Saiko presses, and Hide really doesn’t know if he should just go ahead and answer honestly or keep lying. Should he brush it off and deny knowing a thing about who Haise used to be? Or should he tell her he’s not allowed to answer that question because he simply can’t risk it?

“To you guys, he always has been and always will be Sasaki Haise,” Hide finally says, forcing his thoughts into order. This isn’t the time to be panicking. “He’s your mentor and Maman.”

“Saiko heard what Tsukiyama-san called him,” Saiko insists, and it’s only then that Hide realizes how badly she wants answers. How badly she wants find out the truth about her mother-figure that’s been hidden away from her all this while. “He called him ‘Kaneki-kun’.”

“And how did Haise reply to that?” Hide inquires, starting to feel much calmer now because he knows exactly how Haise had reacted to that.

“He said.. he wasn’t him,” Saiko says haltingly, glancing away for a brief moment before locking eyes with Hide again. “But that’s because he doesn’t remember!” Hide hurriedly shushes her, not wanting her to wake the entire household. And more importantly, not wanting Haise to come investigate the noise and overhear this conversation. “Tsukiyama-san said he was the same with Kaneki Ken - from his looks to the scent of his blood. He can’t be wrong about that.”

She even knows his full name. Just what much did that ghoul tell her?

“Well, he is,” Hide says, doing his best to sound firm. He couldn’t believe how much willpower it takes not to look away from Saiko’s intense stare.

“He’s not,” Saiko says, without a shred of doubt. “And you know that, Hide-san.”

Maybe the accusation hit home. Maybe it’s just the tone of her voice that got to him. Maybe he just decided that arguing any further than this would just make the truth all the more obvious. Either way, Hide’s suddenly feels exhaustion crushing down his shoulders. He’s so tired of it all. Of the lies, the avoidance. The acting. The denials. Oh, the countless denials. He’s so sick of it; so sick of having to constantly remind himself that Haise’s not Kaneki, Haise’s not Kaneki, Haise’s not Kaneki. That even though he believes they’re still the same in some ways, they’re not and that Kaneki’s gone and it’s his fault and that doesn’t even matter because it’s better that way. That everything’s better this way.

He’s just so, so tired.

“How did you find out that I-“ The words die in his throat. It’s laughable. He’s been spouting lies for so long that admitting the truth feels so foreign to him now. He can’t say it, can’t admit she’s right. His body refuses to allow it.

“I only had a feeling at first. Then Tsukiyama-san told me a few things,” Saiko admits, understanding what he fails to say. “But you did know him, didn’t you? Even before you were assigned to the squad.”

A lump abruptly forms in Hide’s throat, and he turns away, burying his face onto his hands. “Please, Saiko-chan,” he pleads, so pitiably that it’s disgusting. “Please don’t’ tell anyone this. Please.”

He must sound even more pathetic than he feels, because Saiko reaches out, and touches his arm gently. “It’s okay, Papa. I won’t tell anyone, I promise. You have Yonebayashi Saiko’s words.”

And she fully means it - Hide knows that somehow. She’ll do everything to keep his secret safe. Hide takes in a shuddering breath, and gradually wills himself to nod, tentatively trusting her honesty. He absolutely hates how weak he currently feels; how vulnerable and miserable and how completely unlike him. He hates it, hates it, hates it. Even if this is how he truly feels about the entire matter, he hates it with all his heart.

“He’s my best friend, Saiko-chan,” he says at last, the softest of whispers. He keeps his face pressed against his palms, unable to bear looking at his subordinate when it feels like he’s rapidly being unraveled into a jumble of emotions. “The reason his memories are like this - there was no other choice-“

He stops, biting hard onto his lip. Breathe. He has to breathe. He can’t break down now. Not in front of Saiko, not in front of anyone. This was his decision and no one else’s. He can’t regret, can’t go back. Not now, not now.

“Everything you’ve done so far,” Saiko begins slowly after giving him a moment, tone every bit as soft as his, “was it all for his sake?”

Was it? Was it really? “I.. don’t know.” Hide shakes his head. His voice sounds weird even to his own ears. “I really don’t know anymore.”

A split-second of silence. Then Saiko asks him something he absolutely does not expect.

“Did you love him?”

Hide stills, completely taken aback. Did he love him? Hide would’ve thought of it as just another one of Saiko’s childish inquiries after all that dating talk, but he could clearly tell that she’s being totally earnest now. With a sharp inhale, he lifts his face, gaze still focused on his hands. Yes. Yes, he did love him. He loved him more than anything in the world. He loved him with all his heart and everything he had and that’s why it hurts so much for things to stay this way no matter what he tells himself and he can only choke out an empty laugh before looking at her funny because gosh why is she even asking it must be as obvious as the sun that-

“I still do, Saiko-chan. I still do.”

xXx

There isn’t much excitement during the two weeks that followed Saiko’s rescue from Gourmet’s manor.

Although they’re still continually assigned to cases, Haise feels that things are gradually starting to quiet down, allowing each of them to resume a somewhat more laidback schedule. They aren’t given complicated investigations to deal with and they frequently find themselves trying to pass time organizing files and documents in the office. Haise can’t say he’s not a bit disturbed by how easy his job suddenly became, but he’s not complaining.

The only spark of excitement they have is for Mutsuki’s surprise birthday party that they somehow found time for, an idea suggested by Hide, who’d wished to reward the younger boy with some fun after all his hard work.

The process of planning the entire thing is, needless to say, borderline chaotic; with Shirazu disagreeing over Saiko’s every choice of songs she wants to play as the background music, Urie having a very unique sense of décor (Haise’s surprised he’s even willing to take part in the preparations; it seems that people do change, bit by bit), Hide insisting for them to wear silly party hats despite everyone’s protests and Haise himself fretting over what sort of special meal he should whip up for the big night. Nevertheless, they still manage to get things done in time despite all the fuss. The entire progress of the preparation wasn’t exactly the smoothest, but Haise supposes what really matters is the end result.

And now, standing there with a huge grin plastered across his face and watching his subordinate’s expression morph from confusion to pure delight at the realization of what exactly is going on, Haise confirms that every bit of trouble they had to go through throughout the past few days are worth it. All those pointless bickers and disagreement and mostly-playful criticism - they’re all worth experiencing if that’s what it takes to make Mutsuki smile like that for the first time in months.

Haise would like to describe the full details of the celebration, but the rest of the evening seems to pass in a blur to him. There’s a bunch of laughter and jokes and lame games (and party hats - don’t’ forget the party hats), that’s for sure. Haise remembers blurting out a few brilliant puns and according to the entire squad, he’d outdone himself with the menu this time. Saiko managed to arrange a surprisingly fitting playlist (though she did sneakily slip in some completely unrelated songs in between) and even Urie’s a little less grumpy than usual. Really, the night almost seemed magical.

It’s the first time they truly felt like one family, and Haise can’t help but feel a blossom of warmth in his chest at the mere thought of it. He knows it’s too much to wish for, but he can’t help thinking how nice it’d be if they could be this carefree more often.

He stumbles into his room after finishing the last bit of cleaning up (upon his own insistence), oddly drained despite how he’d merely spent the night goofing around like a normal youngster his age. He closes the door behind him and nearly trips his way to his bed, plopping down onto the mattress with a satisfied sigh. He swears running all over the place chasing a ghoul is less exhausting than this.

Haise smiles against the sheets when he feels fingers carefully combing through his hair. Now that winter has officially started, the temperature has dropped to an obnoxiously low reading, and Hide’s sleeping spot has somehow or another ended up moving from the floor to the room Haise can spare on his bed once he scoots aside. There’s not much space for the two of them to roll around even with the size of his bed, but none of them particularly minds. It’s much warmer with the presence of another person (and blanket) and that’s pretty much all that matters.

“I can’t believe how tired you are from just a little party,” Hide points out, his voice filled with merriment. Easy for him to say. Unlike Haise, he’s naturally a social guy. Haise only makes a series of muffled, incoherent sounds in response before turning to lie on his side, facing his companion.

“I can’t believe you’re not, after all that guffawing,” Haise retorts, swallowing the urge to protest when Hide retracts his hand. He’d grown to enjoy the feeling of Hide’s fingers sifting through his hair before he knew it, but he’s not letting the blond know that. It’s too embarrassing. Instead, he focuses on asking something that’d been bugging him since dinner. “You didn’t seem to eat much just now. Is everything okay?”

“Aww, I’m so honored that you pay so much attention to me!” Hide replies playfully, earning himself a halfhearted glare from the other boy. He looks away when he adds, “It’s just my cells acting up, no biggie.”  

“Your cells?” Haise feels a stab of worry. “As in your RC levels?”

“I’ll tell you in the morning,” Hide promises, meeting his gaze again with a gentle smile. “You’re too tired to listen to me blabber about stuff anyway. Get some sleep.”

As much as he wants to deny it, Hide’s right. Haise reluctantly nods, letting out a huge yawn and trying to wriggle under his blanket without having to move his head too much. With a soft chuckle, Hide sets his mobile aside and leans forward to help him with his sheets. Haise’s finally enwrapped under a cover of warmth in a minute, and he curls up slightly just to muster a little more of it. He must be even more exhausted than he thought; he’s already drifting off before Hide could even finish wishing him good night.

Haise’s dreams these days are still randomly rotating between blankness, actual dreams, and glimpses of what he suspects are memories. It’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between actual dreams and recollections, but Haise has learnt that ironically, the latter has a sort of blurrier quality to them; missing both minor and major details that determine the context of the remembrances and enable him to piece them together. Places that lacked landmarks, voices without names, people without faces. A fast food restaurant, a bookstore, a bare bedroom that he loathes for a reason he can’t figure out. Voices yelling garbled words at him, numbers, gentler voices telling him things he can’t seem to understand. 

And of course, he still ends up in the checkered chamber more often than he likes, staring straight ahead into a void with him behind him and ready to invade his personal space and whisper into his ear and beg him to call his name.

Only then, he’s quieter lately. Haise would find himself standing in the place, bracing himself for the usual treatment just to eventually have his expectations fall short. No hands, no footsteps, no voices. Why is he suddenly so silent? Haise can’t help but feel like something’s wrong, despite himself.

Still, he doesn’t dare look back.

Haise’s having another one of his memory-dreams now, or at least that’s what he thinks it is. He hasn’t seen this vision before. He’s sitting on a bench in the courtyard of what seems to be a huge university, a book in his hands and a cup of steaming coffee on the table before him. A quick look at the text tells him that he’s reading one of Takatsuki Sen’s earlier works. He can’t feel the temperature, but seeing the trees shrouded in pink and white in the distance, he guesses it’s the beginning of spring.

“Hey, you listening to me?”

Haise’s attention snaps towards the source of the voice, as distorted as all those he’d heard before this. Seated across him on the opposite side of the table, there’s a figure of a person. He can’t quite determine who they are because their entire appearance is blurred, but something in him seems to recognize them. He feels.. at ease. Comforted. Whoever that person is, they must’ve been pretty close to him.

“Yeah, sorry.” Haise hears himself say, placing a finger between the pages of his book before setting it down on the table. With a start, he realizes that the figure before him is slowly coming into focus; he’s already able to make out more details. The person’s a boy about his height and build, wearing a bright yellow jacket and a set of orange headphones around his neck. Haise’s gaze shift higher to see a mess of short, bleached blond hair; the face of the person has yet to make itself clear.

“You weren’t listening, were you? I can’t believe you always prioritize those morbid novels over me.” The person crosses his arms, though he doesn’t sound angry at all. In fact, Haise thinks he hears a sort of weary fondness in the guy’s tone - something he’s just recently familiar with. Wait. Could it be-

The moment he comes to the realization, a horrendous myriad of scratchy clicks suddenly flood his hearing, and the entire dream shatters like glass. Haise frantically presses his hands over his ears in a desperate attempt to drown out the deafening noise, his throat closing with fear when he feels something literally crawling its way deeper into his left ear towards his skull and into his brain and oh god what’s happening why is he-?

“Haise.”

Strangely enough, Haise could still hear his voice above the maddening cacophony when he calls his name, each syllable filled with so much sorrow that it’s enough to actually make him temporarily stop taking notice of the terrible noise.

Don’t take any more of them away from me,” he begs in a voice so close to breaking, this time right next to his ear. Haise promptly jerks awake, a dull ache in his chest. There’s a prickle in his ears, as if those frightening sounds had been real instead of just another element of his nightmare. Sweat beaded his forehead despite the temperature, and his entire body trembles uncontrollably.

Why did he say that? What was he taking away from him?

“Haise? You okay there, buddy?” Hide’s voice sounds behind him in a drowsy murmur. Haise figures he must’ve moved around more than he realized, seeing how he’d even accidentally woken Hide from his sleep.

“Y-Yeah,” he takes a deep breath and assures, working to keep the quaver from his voice. “It’s not anything serious, Hide. Just a bad dream. Go back to sleep.”

“You sure?”

Without really thinking about it, Haise touches his chin. “Yeah. I’m alright, don’t worry about it.”

He could practically feel Hide’s reluctance to stop pressing on, but to his relief, the blond eventually decides not to pry. As Hide shifts to find slumber once more, Haise can’t help but feel immensely grateful that he’s lying facing away from Hide. Otherwise he’d know that sometimes up, something even Haise can’t quite understand.

The person in his dreams. Inner him’s interference as soon as he begins toying with the notion after realizing he recognizes so many things about that stranger. Haise wasn’t sure of it before, but he is now; the identity of the person whom he’d already seen a few times in his visions - in different locations, different time frames. Different memories.

Hide. That person was Hide.

Chapter Text

Fortunately, Haise was able to go back to sleep, dreamless the second time.

In fact, he went back into such deep sleep that he doesn’t even stir when his alarm clock rings in the morning - something that’s only happened a few times before. If Hide hadn’t been woken up by the obnoxiously loud ringing before him, Haise figures he’d be having yet another stressful morning of rushing around and feeling terrible for oversleeping and neglecting to provide the squad a proper breakfast again.

As it is, he only ends up being around ten minutes behind schedule - which, thankfully doesn’t affect his duties much. Mutsuki’s the only one awake when he walks into the dining room; he’s always the earliest one up among his teammates apart from Haise himself. He stops staring into thin air and focuses on his mentor when he hears him walking past, breaking into a pleasant smile.

“Good morning, sensei,” he greets, and Haise returns the smile, pleased to see him in such good spirits.

“Good morning, Mutsuki-kun,” he says before adding sheepishly, “Sorry I’m a bit late again today.”

“No, no, it’s alright!” Mutsuki tells him quickly, waving his hands in front of him for emphasis. He then says a little more quietly, “You’re tired from the events last night, aren’t you? I understand.”

“It’s worth it, though,” Haise says, brightening up as he pulls his apron over his clothes and ties the strap holding it in place behind his back. He then sniffles a bit and holds a finger to the corner of his eye as if wiping off invisible tears. “What’s important is that I got to see my little boy grow up!”

“S-Sensei, please,” Mutsuki protests, turning slightly red from embarrassment. Haise only chuckles good-naturedly at his response, making his way over to the fridge to examine their supplies and decide on what he should make for breakfast. He retrieves the two bowls of leftovers, and when he leans in again to hunt for something else he could use to cook up a fresh breakfast, it strikes him that he’d used most of what they had for yesterday night’s dishes. Well. At least there’s some eggs left; enough for him to make some simple fried rice.

Mutsuki offers to help heat up the cold food while Haise gets to work, and little to no words are exchanged between them after that. The silence isn’t awkward in any way, and it’s soon broken by Shirazu, who, walks into the room just a little after Urie takes his seat at the table. He wishes everyone a hearty good morning with a couple of explosive sneezes before complaining about the bitter cold and striding his way over to where Mutsuki’s standing in front of the microwave, sharing the same intentions to salvage as much warmth as he can from the appliance.

The two of them nearly groan in unison when the timer goes off.

But seriously. Haise has wondered about this after spending one winter in the chateau, but why aren’t there any heaters installed in the place? If the CCG could afford getting them such a huge place to stay in without even asking for rent, they could very well afford to at least provide them with some radiators. Haise makes a mental note to try looking for an inexpensive one when he goes grocery shopping after work later that day. Winter’s just begun a few weeks and it’s already this cold. He doesn’t really want to imagine how it’d feel like to have nothing but a measly heater blanket when the temperature is at its lowest.

Hide bounds in just as Haise’s beginning to clean the utensils after finishing his cooking, rubbing his arms violently and muttering “Colddd!” over and over under his breath. Haise hears him tossing out a quick greeting the rest of the squad before heading into the kitchen, presumably to wash his hands before sitting down to eat.

Ah, which reminds him. He promised to tell him about his strange appetite in the morning, didn’t he? Haise’s just wondering if it’s the right time to ask when a pair of arms suddenly slip loosely around his waist, cutting short his train of thoughts.

“H-Hide!?” Haise nearly says in a squeak when the blond casually rests his chin on his shoulder next, pulling his body flush against his. He’s painfully aware of the fact that the kids are right outside and are probably staring at them incomprehensively right now. What the heck does Hide think he’s doing??

So warm,” Hide sighs appreciatively, showing exactly no signs of wanting to let go anytime soon. If anything, he seems to be getting more and more comfortable - though Haise can’t exactly deny that the cold isn’t nearly as unbearable with them in this position. Figuring Hide probably wouldn’t listen to him anyway, Haise tentatively allows himself to loosen up, welcoming the contact.

“You should go eat before the boys forget to leave some for you,” he reasons halfheartedly, knowing full well that his squad isn’t at all as inconsiderate as that. “Also, if I accidentally elbow you in the ribs while washing these stuff, it’s not my fault.”

Hide hums idly, not even shifting an inch. Haise turns his attention back to the dishes and lets a moment of silence to settle between them, trying hard to ignore the loud thumping of his heartbeat in his ears by focusing on the sounds of running water. They’ve spent around five minutes in wordlessness when Hide finally speaks up.

“My RC count has somehow risen high enough to affect my sense of taste,” he says just loud enough for Haise alone to hear, answering his unvoiced question as if he read his earlier thoughts. “But it’s only temporary, so don’t worry too much about it,” he adds before Haise could start asking further, “I don’t have a kakuhou so there’s no way for me to store my RC cells, and a bunch of them die off just like every other cells. I’ll be back to normal as soon as the level of it drops again.”

“How long does it take?” Haise asks, unable to stop himself from shivering when Hide unwinds his arms and steps back, letting a rush of cold air replace his presence. Hoping his discontent isn’t showing, he turns around to face him properly. “For you to go back to normal, I mean.”

“Hmmm.” Hide taps a finger against his jaw in thought. “It usually takes around three or four days, I guess? Though I can actually speed it up if I want to.”

“What do you-“ Haise trails off when it dawns him. Hide needs a higher amount of RC cells for his regeneration. The only way he can deplete them is by using them. Haise immediately shoots the blond a stern look. “Don’t you dare do anything stupid, Hide.”

“Relax, buddy. I’ve got it all figured out,” Hide assures with a wave of his hand, flashing him a bright grin. At the sight of it, Haise’s abruptly reminded of his dream the night before; the blurry vision of Hide, the noises, the terrifying sensation in his ear. Inner him’s plea. Haise’s still much too confused to decipher the meaning behind his words. What exactly was he taking from him? What could he have done to upset him so much that it almost seems as if he’d went through a complete personality change?

“Hey, Hide?” he says without thinking, and Hide pauses from his trudge back to the table after cleaning his hands, turning around and raising an eyebrow at him. It’s only after he’d gotten the blond’s attention that Haise realizes he has no idea what he wants to say.

“Something wrong?” Hide asks when Haise’s at loss for words for almost a full minute, his voice laced with concern. “You’re staring at me funny.”

“U-Um, you know what, it’s nothing,” Haise stammers, then proceeding to inwardly kick himself because that’s about the lamest way he can dismiss a topic of conversation. Hide looks like he’s just about to say more when Shirazu coughs loudly, successfully directing the two older boys’ attention towards the dining table. All three of the present Quinx look like they’re trying very hard not to make this awkward for anyone.

“We’re sorry to interrupt,” Shirazu says, eyes trained on his bowl like it’s the most fascinating thing in the world. The corners of his mouth look suspiciously upturned, and there’s a faintest trace of red in his cheeks. “But you should eat the stuff while they’re still hot, Hide-san. It helps with the cold.”

Hide’s curious gaze returns to Haise, and the latter shakes his head, gesturing for him to do as Shirazu suggests. Hide stares at him a little longer, eyebrows slightly knitted in doubt, before finally breaking into a sigh and relenting. Haise lets out a breath he didn’t realize he’s holding when the blond leaves, his heartbeat still slightly off rhythm. It feels like he’d just narrowly avoided something big, though he has no idea what that something is. Ignoring the thought, Haise proceeds to finish the rest of his task so he could make himself some coffee next and move on with the morning.

Now if only the insistent ringing in his left ear that’d started the moment he remembered his dreams would stop.

xXx

Right after receiving a briefing on their newest case, Hide’s summoned to the Director’s office.

Akira couldn’t answer him when he asked what’s all this about, so he guesses he has no other way to find out. Popping a quick word to Haise once they’ve stepped out of the conference room, Hide turns on his heels and heads towards the opposite direction, away from his squad.

His footsteps echo through the mostly empty hallways as he makes his way towards the elevators, his thoughts racing. There’s a bunch of things that he could be summoned for; from having to give a spontaneous report regarding the Quinx squad’s development to simply sitting down for tea because Director Washuu suddenly ‘felt like it’ (it’s happened before). Whatever it is, Hide really hopes it’s not something too major. He seriously needs a break to catch his breath before being sent tumbling all over the place again; both physically and emotionally.

Ohh, if it isn’t Nagachika!”

Hide lifts his gaze at the sound of the familiar voice coming from within the newly arrived elevator, a grin already forming on his lips.

“Kuramoto-san!” he greets cheerfully, stepping into the compartment and giving the older boy a high-five. If there’d been someone else in there, their casualness around each other will surely be frowned upon - though it’s not like Hide cares, really. “It’s been a while!”

“Yeah, well,” Kuramoto scratches the back of his head, wincing, “we’ve been insanely busy even before the auction raid; now we’re being assigned one big case after another even though Hirako-san’s barely recovered from his injuries. I mean, it’s great because it means we’ll get to work towards a promotion and all, but the higher-ups aren’t even attempting to hide the fact that they’re trying to work us to the bone.” He exhales wearily, slouching his shoulders and adjusting his grip on the documents in his arms. “I need a vacation, geez.”

“Must be hard on you guys, huh?” Hide sympathizes, moving to push the button to the highest floor. Kuramoto raises an eyebrow when he sees where he’s heading, but he doesn’t ask.

“How are you and Haise doing these days, by the way?” he inquires instead, leaning back against the wall as Hide turns to face him properly. Despite his easy tone, Hide detects the implication he’s making. Kuramoto was there during the operation; he’s one of the many who’d seen Haise losing control and Hide’s attempt to bring him back to his senses.

“He’s not trying to rip my guts out at every chance he gets, so I guess we’re getting along pretty well,” Hide says, and Kuramoto promptly lets out a snort, evidently amused by his answer.

“‘Getting along pretty well’ must be the biggest understatement of the year, my friend,” Kuramoto tells him, placing a hand on his shoulder. For a moment, Hide’s too confused to comprehend. “You probably don’t notice it yourself, but you look miles different now compared to when I first met you.”

“That’s like, when I was still in Division II almost a year ago,” Hide protests, then starting when he remembers something. “Come to think of it, Akira-san also once said something about me being livelier when I met her after getting transferred.”

“Exactly,” Kuramoto agrees, wearing his signature smirk which meaning even Hide has trouble trying to decipher sometimes. Whatever it is now, it only adds to his curiosity.

“How exactly am I different from before?” he asks before he could help himself. To his chagrin, the elevator comes to a stop the moment he voices his question, having reached Kuramoto’s designated floor.

“Hmm, I guess it’s more to the look in your eyes,” the older boy muses, straightening up and walking unhurriedly towards the parting doors. The smirk doesn’t fade from his lips when he continues, “You used to have eyes resembling those of a dead fish, Nagachika. Did you know that?”

Hide couldn’t stop pondering over Kuramoto’s words as he continues his way towards his destination.

He looked that lifeless before he was unceremoniously chucked into the Quinx squad? He sure didn’t feel like it. He’d been extremely careful not to let anything show past his normal demeanor; he’s serious when he needs to be and he’s carefree and silly when he doesn’t. Of course, with everything he had to go through, he has to admit there hadn’t been much room for him to fool around. In retrospect, Hide remembers constantly feeling almost mechanical in everything he did; especially the first few months after he’s finally allowed to leave the research facility once they’re done with messing with his body. He remembers how the numbness refused to go away even when he was first thrown into a battlefield with nothing but a basic Quinque and barely any combat skills as part of his escalated training program; how it stubbornly remained even when he’s given the chance to see Haise behind monitor screens for the first time in months.

If anything, Hide frankly finds that lack of emotion a tad bit easier to deal with compared to the maelstrom of feelings he has to get under control after reuniting with his best friend who no longer remembers him. At least the pain wasn’t that profound and was easier to be masked behind his everyday behavior. In fact, he’s been pretty proud of his newfound acting skills throughout the years. To be able to read him so easily – Kuramoto is shrewder than he looks; as expected of a person with squinty eyes, Hide supposes. He makes a mental note to be more careful when discussing about private matters with him in the future.

He finally comes to a stop before a specific set of  doors, pausing to take a deep breath and push all futile thoughts to the back of his mind before reaching out to knock sharply against the polished wood. He hears Director Washuu’s muffled voice granting him permission to enter a second later, and he proceeds to do just that.

The Director’s office is bare despite its size, housing nothing but a large desk facing the entrance directly. There are no windows in the place, and that fact never fails to give Hide the strangest sense of claustrophobia whenever he’s there. Swallowing the familiar discomfort, Hide crosses the empty space and stops about a meter away from his superior, standing straight with his arms folded firmly behind his back.

“You called for me, sir?”

He has to wait a few seconds before Yoshitoki looks up from his work to acknowledge his presence, a friendly smile gracing his aged features the moment their eyes meet.

“Rank 1 Nagachika,” he greets, setting down his pen before moving to stand up. “Perfect timing. Would you care to join me for some tea while we talk?”

It’s not like he has any other choice. With a soft “Of course,” Hide follows the older man towards a door at the side of the office that leads to an adjacent sitting room. Hide has only been to the sitting room twice so far, and he still can’t stop marveling over how different the place is compared to the empty, plain office. A set of velvety sofas surround a low table at the center of the room, and the curtains are drawn, allowing plenty of sunlight to illuminate the place while giving them a breathtaking view of the city below through the floor-to-ceiling windows. There’s a small bar at one corner, complete with a cabinet lined with various beverages and tableware.

“Ah, I’ll give you a hand!” Hide offers when he sees Yoshitoki walking towards the counter. There’s no way he can have his boss personally make him tea - that’s just ridiculous! However, the older man simply brushes him off, motioning for him to take a seat while he prepares their drinks. Hide reluctantly settles down on one of the sofas, trying his hardest not to fidget as he waits.

“Thank you very much,” he says with utmost politeness when his superior places a filled china cup on the table in front of him. He waits for the latter to take his own seat before moving to lift the cup from its saucer for a sip.

“I hope it suits your tastes,” Yoshitoki tells him, still wearing that easygoing smile. Despite his laidback manner, Hide notices the subtle way he’s observing his every move.  

“It’s delicious, sir,” he assures once he’d swallowed his drink, then leaning forward and setting his cup back onto the table. The man remains silent as he continues to watch him, and Hide’s dangerously close to voicing a question when he finally speaks.

“How are you faring so far, Nagachika-kun?”

And Hide only stares at him dumbfounded, not quite understanding the context. Is this about his personal wellbeing or..?

“Are Sasaki-kun and the Quinx treating you well?” the Director affirms with another inquiry after seeing his look of confusion, lacing his fingers together on his lap. Right. The most important thing first.

“They are,” Hide answers, then realizing that he’s being a little too curt, he adds, “They’re a troublesome bunch at times, but they’re really taking good care of me.”

“Troublesome, you say?” The older man raises at eyebrow at him, looking so genuinely amused that Hide feels himself tentatively relaxing at last. “No wonder you fitted in so easily.”

Not knowing how else he should respond to that, Hide’s only able to let out a small laugh. ‘Troublesome’ is one way to put it. It’s not every day that a mere part-timer runs to the director of a ghoul annihilation organization right before a major operation to beg and bargain for the life of his half-ghoul best friend to be spared and actually end up successful. Though it wasn’t at all his intention to stand out in the first place, Hide would honestly be a little offended if that feat of his hadn’t been able to impress the old guy even by a little bit.

A few short knocks sound from the closed door before the two of them could continue their conversation any further, and Hide turns towards the entrance in curiosity, wondering who it could be. Judging from the way Yoshitoki reacts by calmly inviting the newcomer in, he’s apparently expecting their arrival.

Hide’s brain instantly short-circuits when he sees Arima Kishou shortly making his way through the doorway, his presence even more imposing than the last time Hide had seen him. Hide figures it’s because they’re meeting during working hours now instead of their leisure time, and the thought really doesn’t help. With both the Director and Arima here, he has a feeling this discussion can only lead to one thing.

After a brief exchange of greetings and a quiet refusal for drinks on Arima’s part, Hide sits a little straighter, and braces himself for what’s to come.

“Apart from that one incident during the auction, Nagachika-kun,” Yoshitoki begins once they’ve settled down again, all traces of his amiability from earlier gone and replaced by a graveness that makes Hide raise his mental shields at once. “Has Sasaki-kun been doing well?”

“He hasn’t lost control since then,” Hide tells him flat out with hardly a pause, working to sound every bit as professional as his superior. “He doesn’t show any obvious signs of hunger before his feeding date, either, so the RC suppressants should still be doing their job.”

“And his memories?”

“Either he’s very good at hiding it, or there’s no sign of them returning, sir.”

Hide returns his superior’s skeptical look with a level stare, willing himself not to waver. He can’t show any weakness, especially not in front of this particular pair who are fully aware of the circumstances he’s in and are not afraid to bind him to his contract and use him to their full benefit - though Washuu Yoshitoki is the one he really needs to be more wary of. Despite his kindly appearance, Hide knows how big of a schemer the man could be if the need arises. After all, he’s more or less the similar type of person himself.

He fights back the urge to exhale loudly when Yoshitoki finally turns away from him to regard Arima. “What do you think, Kishou? Should we risk letting Nagachika-kun stay longer in Sasaki-kun’s squad?”

Hide’s heart skips a beat. Wait a second. He’s considering kicking him out of the squad already? It’s been barely two months! If they’re just going to reassign him again so soon, then what’s the point of putting him there in the first place?

Arima’s silent for a full minute, his expression so difficult to read that Hide can’t quite decide if he’s deep in thought or merely spacing out. Knowing the older investigator, it could easily be both.

“Do you still remember your main duty, Nagachika?” he asks at last, his gaze flickering towards Hide. And hearing that, Hide nearly scoffs because how could he ever forget. No, he can never forget; not with Haise being the walking reminder of it.

“My job is to do whatever it takes tame the SS rate ‘Haise’ if he ever goes berserk and is in danger of letting his ghoul instincts completely take over,” Hide says, only slightly taken aback by how calm he sounds and how little he feels about this. As though he’s only stating facts – which, he actually is. “And if he’s beyond the point of return-” he hesitates for a split second this time, “ –I’ll have to exterminate him, or die trying.”

“Even though he used to be your best friend?”

Hide would’ve loathed Arima that exact moment if he hadn’t quickly come to a realization that he’s not asking that to spite him, and that it’s just his brutal blatancy at work. Hide’s personal life is not of Arima’s concern; he’s merely asking that to confirm his resolve. To make sure he’s still able to carry out his part of his bargain.

“I was the one who’d agreed to do it in the first place,” Hide says, scarcely able to conceal the tightness in his voice as he holds the man’s gaze as firmly as he can. “And I won’t back out from my promises. If things ever come to it, I’ll erase him with my own two hands.”

Arima regards him a moment longer, and Hide could’ve sworn he saw something flicker in those usually stoic eyes for a fraction of a second. As for what that something is, he has absolutely no idea. “Then I suppose it’s alright for Nagachika to continue staying with the Quinx.”

“As long as he doesn’t get too carried away,” Yoshitoki agrees, nodding contemplatively. Despite his own relief, Hide knows thanking them would only show that he’s taking this too personally, so he keeps quiet. Also, speaking of the deals and promises he’d made, Hide’s just reminded of something. Bumping into Kuramoto earlier jogged his memory about it, but it’s been out of his thoughts until now. It’s a particular condition he’d agreed to fulfill along with many others in exchange for Kaneki’s life, and since it’s quite rare for the three of them to gather like this, Hide decides it’s a great time for him to give his superiors an update on his progress.

“Director Washuu, Special Class Arima,” he speaks up just before their little meeting adjourns, not budging even when the other two begins to stand. He takes a breath to gather his thoughts, then continues, “Before you leave, there’s something else I need to tell you. It’s about the Clowns.”

xXx

Haise doesn’t realize he’s been touching his left ear a lot for a past three days until Shirazu points it out.

The ringing comes on and off, but it’s constant enough to eventually start bothering him. Haise still remembers the previous dream he had with vivid detail; unable to forget those terrifying noises and the realistic sensation of having something with hundreds of legs forcing its way into his ear. The memory of the nightmare haunts him whenever his thoughts aren’t occupied, and to make matters worse, Haise’s only growing more and more frightened instead of slowly getting over it. He’s almost sure he’ll dig a finger into his ear one of these days just to find something lodged in the canal; specifically something with a disturbing number of legs.

Despite having done the same many times before, Haise struggles to hide his trepidation from his team. Every member in his squad is sharper than they look, and they’re easily able to notice that something’s not right. Plus, Haise isn’t doing himself any favors by being more absentminded than usual and producing prominent bags under his eyes in a short period of time despite not having to work on anything particularly big yet.

“You’re doing it again.”

Haise stills at the sound of Hide’s voice beside him, realizing soon after that he’s been fiddling with his ear. Again.

“You’ve been acting out of it lately,” Hide observes further as Haise numbly lets his hand fall back to his side. He then leans in slightly to try catching his eyes. “Everything okay?”

“I-I’m fine,” Haise assures, albeit a little too quickly. He averts his gaze when Hide continues studying his face, concern clearly written all over his features. “I was just thinking about the plotline of the book,” he adds, almost as an afterthought. At that, Hide’s frown deepens by a fraction.

“Seeing how you’ve been at that page probably even before I came in, the story must be really complicated,” he states drily, and Haise blanches. The blond’s tone softens when he continues, “You’ve been losing sleep again, haven’t you? Something’s bothering you.”

Haise purses his lips, unable to decide on how to answer him. Part of him stubbornly wants to brush him off; to tell him that it’s nothing big and that insomnia isn’t anything out of the ordinary for him. That he doesn’t need to worry about him over every little thing and that he’ll be alright after a while. Another part of him, however, is tempted to spill everything out; to confess that he’s touching his ear for a reason and to ask him if he has any ideas about the cause of the sudden change in his character and the heavy grief in his voice and the meaning of his words.

And yet another part of him badly wants to ask who he’d been to him, to have appeared in his glimpses of memories.

“You don’t feel like talking about it?” Hide inquires gently, and for some reason, Haise feels his usual resolve of bottling everything up slowly crumble at the tone of his voice. Does he really want to go on like this? To have his thoughts constantly occupied by this and this alone? No, he can’t afford to do that. He has a job to do and a life to live. He can’t mull over this and keep on worrying everyone around him.

But he also doesn’t want to burden another with his own problems.

“There’s.. been this sort of ringing in my ear,” Haise begins reluctantly, making the conscious effort to stop his hand from instinctively reaching up. Instead, he moves to close his novel before setting it on his lap, keeping his gaze fixed on his hands as he fingers the edge of his blanket. “It started a few days ago; after a particular dream I had.”

From the corner of his eye, he sees Hide nod, not saying a word even though he probably knows which night he’s referring to. For the umpteenth time, Haise comes to appreciate how patient Hide always is with him; how he’d never unnecessarily push him to do things he’s not ready to do. He takes a deep breath, gathering his courage to forge on. He knows Hide wouldn’t mind even if he decides to stop now, but he’s tired of running away. Maybe if he keeps talking about it, Hide will be able to help him understand. And even if he isn’t able to do that, maybe Haise will also come to a sort of breakthrough himself. Maybe something will finally make sense after he voices everything out.

He spoke to me during that dream,” Haise continues once he’s ready, still not taking his gaze away from his hands. He doesn’t know if he’d imagined it, but he thinks he hears the slightest hitch in Hide’s breathing the minute he mentions him. “All he told me was a single sentence, but there’s something about his words, something about this tone of voice that I can’t understand. I don’t know what’s wrong, but-” Haise swallows, “-he sounded so devastated, Hide. He’s upset, and somehow, it’s my fault.”

The atmosphere between them shifts the moment he finishes his sentence, and eventually overwhelmed by curiosity, Haise finally dares himself to look up. Hide’s expression isn’t much different from how it’s been since the beginning of their conversation, but Haise spots the troubled look in his eyes - which, in turn, unsettles him because he’d only seen Hide like that during situations that are dead serious. Perhaps all of this is an even bigger deal than Haise thinks.

“What did he say?” Hide’s the first to break the quietness, speaking in a faintly quavering whisper. Haise stares at him in slight bafflement, having not expecting him to react this way.

Then again, it also confirms his suspicions more and more.

“He told me not to take any more of ‘them’ away from him,” Haise replies after another short silence, and very abruptly, an idea hits him. He freezes, his mind racing. He’d said that right after that particular vision; one of the many which Haise assumes are glimpses of memories. But no, that doesn’t seem right either - it’s not like Haise was seeing all those on purpose! He can’t control what he dreams, much less what he sees in them! He can’t blame him for something he’s not doing deliberately!

“Haise?”

Haise figures he must be making a peculiar face, judging from the increased concern in Hide’s voice when he calls his name. Not that he’s in the state care about that, really. The more Haise ponders over the thought, the more likely it all seems because there’s just no other explanation. He feels silly for not noticing it earlier, but he gets the feeling he knows what inner him was talking about now.

“I think he’s referring to our memories,” Haise blurts out before his hesitance could set in, watching as Hide’s eyes slowly widen upon registering his words. “I can’t explain why it’s happening, but recently, I’ve been seeing fragments of recollections in my dreams. Before he interfered that night, I was recalling something.”

“So does that mean.. he doesn’t want you to remember?” Hide says, his voice strangely tight, his expression a look of barely concealed dismay. Haise shrugs helplessly, unable to provide him with a solid answer since the entire thing is merely an assumption on his part as well. However, there is one thing he’s certain about.

“There’s more to it,” Haise says, the words spilling from his mouth before he can restrain himself. He keeps his gaze locked with his companion’s, his heartbeat speeding up from his mixture anticipation and apprehension towards Hide’s response to what he’s about to say. “You were there, Hide. You were in those glimpses of my memories.”

Chapter Text

Haise doesn’t know what he’s expecting.

But he definitely didn’t expect Hide to stare at him and suddenly break into a lopsided smile as though he’d just blurted out something amusing.

It doesn’t reach his eyes, Haise notices first of all. Followed by the fact that it seems painfully forced and that Hide looks like he’s barely able to maintain his composure.

“It could’ve been just another dream, Haise,” he says, very softly. Haise’s somehow able to tell that he’s trying hard to sound convincing while retaining his usual cheery front. It actually hurts to hear him sound like that, but Haise can’t seem to find the right words to make him stop. “Some studies claim that we only dream of faces of real people, so you could be confused.”

“You don’t understand,” Haise protests, fingers curling into the material of his blanket. “I can’t really explain it, but I can tell which is a dream and which is a memory. You were there in them, Hide. I’ve seen you in my memories a few times already. I couldn’t see your face properly, but-“ he makes a frustrated sound because it’s so darn tricky to put it in words and everything he says is all over the place, “-I don’t know how to describe it, but that person gives off the exact same vibe as you do.”

“We’ve only met a few months ago,” Hide reasons, leaning back so that they’re no longer quite so close together. He sounds a bit calmer compared to a minute ago. “Unless it’s for your more recent memories, it’s impossible for me to be in them.”

“But you are,” Haise insists, his words coming out in something just short of a plea. “You are in them, Hide. I..I knew you.” He searches Hide’s features for answers, for even the smallest of hints. “I knew you, long before you even got assigned here.”

And Hide doesn’t admit nor deny that. He merely purses his lips and keeps quiet, averting his gaze to the side. Haise feels his heart sinking because he’s right, isn’t he? Hide knows who he used to be before he woke from that coma without a single memory. From how unsurprised he was when he told him he was a half-ghoul, when he told him about the voice in his head. He’d known all along.

“Who were you to me, Hide?”

Something in him screams at him to stop there and dwell no further if he knows what’s good for him. That knowing any more than this will only put himself in jeopardy. However, his growing curiosity eventually wins out because he’d been pondering about this for so long and the answers are literally right in front of him and the more irrational part of him simply refuses to relent until he gets what he wants.

I wonder?” Hide muses in a barely audible mutter, with so much melancholy that Haise’s breath catches in his throat. Suddenly he’s afraid all over again; of who he used to be and what he’d done in the past. Of whether he’d done something terribly wrong and ended up hurting the people close to him.

“I can’t tell you, Haise,” Hide finally says aloud instead, meeting his eyes resolutely. There’s a tinge of regret in his tone, as well as a certain bleakness that Haise occasionally detects from him. “I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you.”

Haise’s scared to press on, yet- “And why’s that?”

“Because it’s for the best that you don’t know,” Hide replies, a slight quiver creeping to his voice. “It’s better for you not to remember.”

“I’m the one who decides what’s best for me,” Haise says, silently pleading and pleading for him to just stop looking at him like that, like he’s the most fragile thing in the world. “So don’t you dare give me any of that.”

“You don’t understand the risks, Haise,” Hide tells him, briefly glancing away before resuming eye contact. “All along, you’ve been afraid of your memories for personal reasons, but there’s much more to it. He has probably figured it out, and that’s why he’s trying to protect you by stopping you from remembering.”

The idea of inner him wanting to protect him after everything they’ve went through seems so outrageous at first that Haise’s brain utterly fails to process the thought. After all those taunts and nightmares and general attempts to make his life miserable - he’s trying to protect him now? It absolutely makes no sense.

Yet when he thinks back on it, has it always been like that? Could he have misunderstood something along the way? His taunts, his promises to grant him power - could he have actually been thinking of his wellbeing? Because he knows he’s wouldn’t stand a chance with his strength alone? The times when he jeered at him for not being able to save those precious to him - was he actually somehow trying to motivate him in his own twisted way? The more Haise thinks about it, the more absurd it seems.

But.. what if it is true?

“Why would he do that?” Haise asks in a voice so small it hardly sounds like his own. Hide once again gives him that look of weary fondness he’d come to familiarize, his smile turning forlorn.

“Because you’re both part of the same person,” he explains, “and it’s only natural for us to avoid getting ourselves hurt.”

“But you’re hurting, Hide,” Haise points out, the growing ache in his chest beginning to make it slightly difficult to breathe. This time, it’s his turn to lean closer towards his companion. “Even I can tell that much. There’s something about this that-“

“Haise,” Hide stops him before he’s able to finish, his tone still quiet, but undeniably firm. “I’ve already said too much. So please,” he traces the outline of Haise’s face with his fingertips, his gaze beseeching, “stop there. It doesn’t matter what our relationship used to be. You’ve started anew, and so have I. Let everything be as it is.”

“I can’t.” Haise shakes his head helplessly, knowing full well he won’t be able to do that after everything he’s heard. Hide’s asking for the impossible. There’s no way Haise could let things be when he knows just how much pain Hide is in and it has something to do with him. There’s no way he could sit back and pretend nothing’s wrong when someone he cares so much about has been lying to him all along claiming that it’s for his sake.  

There’s no way he could go on as if nothing’s wrong when Hide’s been working so hard to mask the misery he’s in because he can’t stand it; Haise can’t stand knowing someone else’s silently suffering for him and he’d rather be the one hurt instead of letting others carry his burden.

“Please, Haise,” Hide says again, just short of a beg. “Don’t make this any more difficult for the both of us.”

“Why are you even doing this?” Haise demands, his frustration building along with his sense of powerlessness. Rather, he’s sure it’s building because of his inability to change a thing. “Why are you willing to go through so much for me?”

 “Because that’s the only way, Haise,” Hide tells him, and Haise’s sure he feels something within him shrivel up and die the moment he hears his answer. “Because I don’t ever want to lose you again.”

xXx

Hide can’t decide whether to cry or rejoice at Haise’s revelation.

It’s a messy mixture of both at the beginning where Haise first questioned his identity, but once they’ve managed to end the conversation and eventually settle down for a good night’s sleep (ah, wishful thinking), the numbness which Hide thought had left him for good  returns at full blast. Then again, Hide figures he’s bound to experience some emotional setback after destroying his faintest sliver of hope on his own.

But hey - it’s for the best, right?

Despite the blankets and Haise beside him within arm’s reach, that night is one of the coldest Hide ever had the dread to attempt sleeping through.

Of course, Hide can’t honestly expect things between Haise and himself to completely go back to how they were before after all that’s said and done. He’s being selfish, and he’s aware of that. Still, he tries. He wakes to the annoyingly loud ring of Haise’s alarm clock the next morning and mutters a compliment at his roommate’s wild bed hair the first thing he does just like every other day. He greets everyone heartily at the dining table downstairs once he’s done showering (though he’s lost the chance to complain about the cold; their new radiator’s a blessing from the gods) and he tries to include everyone in a conversation like he always does. He works to exert his usual upbeat energy so no one would suspect a thing.

And despite the subtle strain that hovers between them like an insistent fog, Haise - to Hide’s slight surprise - reluctantly plays along with him. He guesses Haise’s not keen on worrying the kids as well, being ever the considerate one. Though there are admittedly more awkward pauses and lack of eye contact between them, Hide thinks they manage to pull it off pretty well. The fact that they’re getting busier with their latest investigation helps. At least everyone’s too distracted to afford paying much attention to the minor things. Hide himself certainly can’t.

The investigation on the Clowns has been going on since pretty much forever - or, at least that’s what Hide caught wind of when he was still a simple part-timer in the CCG’s 20th Ward branch office. Thinking it might come in handy in the future, he’d invested some time in trying to dig up some useful information on them alongside his search for Kaneki, and his intuition had been right once again. In fact, Hide gets the feeling Director Washuu wouldn’t have even considered listening to the rest of his appeal after the first sentence if he hadn’t proposed to aid in their stagnant progress on the elimination of the infamous Clown group. Thank goodness he’d also made himself a little known for his gift of playing detective exceptionally well before that. Otherwise his assurances would’ve had the about the same worth as dog poop.

All along, Hide has been secretly aiding in the Clowns’ investigation as part of the intelligence team; questioning the ghouls in Cochlea to see if they had any information when he was still stationed at Division II, digging through the internet and the CCG’s records system at night after work every day for reports that might mention them. Although they’ve been lying low for the past couple of years, the Clowns are still dangerous enough for the Commission to persist on planning for their complete annihilation. Not only are most of them rated A and above, their motives are unclear even after all this while. Hide especially hates the fact that they seldom work as a group because that would mean he’d have to somehow track them down one by one if it comes to it and make his job about a billion times harder.

On the other hand, he doesn’t really fancy seeing what they’re capable of doing as a group, either. Three of them had apparently been reported to have attended the Madam’s auction the other night (for what reason, though, Hide couldn’t fathom), and they were intercepted by Kuramoto and his squad when the operation began. From what Hide heard, they’ve only managed to kill one of them before the other two decided to retreat and escape. First Class Hirako was injured quite badly from the encounter but, unfortunately, that’s the least of the CCG’s worries.

The Clowns are on the move once again. And if that’s not bad enough, according to what he got from Hori Chie, word is spreading in the ghouls’ world that they are finally beginning to gather - presumably for something big and nasty. Hide has yet to find out where and why they’re assembling, but he, along with the rest of the investigators left with the same responsibility, has to do it fast. The risks to letting the Clowns act before them are simply too high. Forget the CCG - Hide himself dreads the consequences of letting that group do as they please.

Hide kneads his fingers against his temples, feeling a massive headache on its way. He’s grateful for the necessity of his brain’s near fulltime usage and all, but one annoyingly stubborn part of his thoughts still insists on wandering off to the recesses of his mind that he’d labeled as off-limits. Really, if banging his head against the wall is what it takes to show that part who’s boss, he’ll do it without even pausing to reconsider.

Haise’s starting to remember. Kaneki’s stopping him. Hide really wants to feel relieved because his best friend understands their circumstances and he’s doing what he can for both their sakes as well, but truthfully, he’s relieved for another reason entirely. From how it sounds, Haise doesn’t fear his ‘inner self’ as much now – even expressing his worry for him when he notices how unhappy he is. That’s great, really. He’s finally growing less afraid of the other aspect of himself.

However, the price of this tentative acknowledgement is Kaneki’s own feelings, and Hide can’t say this awareness sits well with him. His answer to Haise’s question about the meaning behind Kaneki’s words hadn’t been entirely truthful. ‘Don’t take any more of them away from him’, huh? Haise’s probably right about him referring to their memories, but Hide also feels that that’s just half of it. He might’ve also been talking about the people he knows, and how Haise is indirectly ‘taking’ them from him. Touka, Tsukiyama – even Hide himself and perhaps a few others neither of them are aware of; he’d reunited with them as ‘Haise’ and not ‘Kaneki’, after all.

Hide wants to cry, but the numbness refuses to let the tears come. For Kaneki to go as far as begging Haise not to take memories and people away from him, it could mean that his presence in Haise’s subconsciousness is beginning to fade and that he’s desperate to keep that from happening by holding on to what he thinks makes him. Or worse, Kaneki must be starting to feel terribly lonely.

And Hide hasn’t made things a bit better by telling Haise that it’s better to forget and move on without knowing who he was, has he? Hide knows firsthand just how much Kaneki loathes and dreads being in solitude, yet there he is being the one putting him in that state and insisting that it’s for his sake. Yet he’s the one who’s indirectly telling Haise that it’s alright even if he lives on without knowing and accepting who he was in the past.

Yet he’s the one who’s rejecting his existence.

Hide has long lost the right to call himself Kaneki’s best friend and he knows that. Oh, he knows that and it doesn’t stop him from hating himself any less. He has always pondered if Kaneki really would be happier this way and with every passing day the answer only becomes more and more apparent. Kaneki will never be entirely happy unless he embraces every aspect of himself, until he accepts that everyone has a monster in them and that there’s no need to be afraid of his as long as he understands, accepts, and works with him.

But their situation simply isn’t giving him the privilege to do any of that. Even Hide doesn’t know what the CCG might do to his best friend if they find out he’s somehow remembered who he used to be, nor does he know how Kaneki would react upon realizing he’s been working with and under the very people who’d taken everything away from him and forced him to start over. And truth to be told, Hide’s afraid to know. He’s so focused on merely keeping his most important person alive that he can’t bear to think that far ahead.

Hide feels a lance of pain shoot through his temples, and his winces. Yep, definitely a massive headache. He leans back against his chair and breathes a long sigh, squeezing his eyes shut in an attempt to ease his throbbing skull.  Maybe he should just take some painkillers and call it a day - it’s getting late and he’s not on track of anything new and he won’t be doing himself any favors busting his brain trying to solve a thousand and one problems simultaneously. Sleep sounds like a great idea.

So he closes his windows and proceeds to shut down his laptop, pulling his headphones off just before he hears a series of soft knocks on his door. Or his guest could’ve been knocking for a long while now and he’d just heard it - he’ll never know. At any rate, Hide takes a quick breath to set his features back to how it normally looks, and hoping he sounds curious enough, he calls for the person outside to come in.

Somehow, Hide isn’t really that surprised when he sees Saiko peeking in from the gap she’s opened a second later. He guesses he’s grown immune to her sudden appearances after the previous time. Plus, he’s aware of Saiko’s random sleep schedules that heavily depend on when she’s able to reach the next save point; her being awake at this hour isn’t anything new.

“Am I disturbing or anything, Papa?” she asks, still not moving from her spot. Hide smiles, and shakes his head.

“I was just about to go upstairs to bed,” he tells her, not quite bothered by the fact that he’s just revealed he’s bunking in with Haise anymore. Hell, she probably has her own suspicions already. “But it’s alright. What’s wrong?”

Saiko trudges the rest of her way in, closing the door behind her before walking up to her superior. Up close, Hide’s able to spot the worry on her face.

“Did something happen between you and Maman?” she asks, no less straightforward than before. Ah, it only occurs to Hide now. While everyone else should be too caught up with their duties to heed everything unrelated (and rightly so), there’s one person in the squad who’s never been afraid to do the complete opposite. If there’s anyone who could’ve noticed something out of the ordinary and have little to no qualms asking about it, it’s Saiko.

But Hide isn’t in the mood to talk about it, nor does he want to drag Saiko any further into this. As tired of it he is, it’s still his problems and his alone. He shouldn’t needlessly involve others and cause a fuss. 

“Hmm?” Hide tilts his head slightly to the side and feigns ignorance - really well too, if he may say so himself. “Not really. What makes you think that?”

“The two of you were acting a bit weird today,” Saiko points out, not taking her eyes off his for even a second. “Saiko can’t really explain it, but.. you both seemed a little distant from each other.”

Frankly, Hide’s pretty sure his act had been borderline perfect thanks to his body’s persistence in refusing to let his emotions get the better of him. He can’t help but wonder just how much extra attention Saiko pays to them and why she would go through the trouble of doing that. Perhaps it’s the knowledge of her parent-figures’ state of affairs that drives her to be extra observant towards them; Hide understands that reason more than anything. Maybe losing his composure in front of her was a bad idea after all.

“Well, we can’t seriously be chummy all day every day, Saiko-chan,” Hide says with a waggle of his eyebrows, lacing his words with a hint of mirth. “Despite everything, we’re still working adults, you know.”

Saiko stares at him in doubt, and Hide catches himself hoping she wouldn’t refuse to leave until she successfully presses him for answers. Both mother and daughter are seriously not making his job easy, sheesh.

“You don’t feel like talking about it?” she asks softly, and Hide feels his emotional numbness recede the slightest at her gentle tone. Mutely, he shakes his head, raking his fingers through his hair as he heaves a deep sigh.

“I’m sorry, Saiko-chan.” He grimaces, averting his gaze. “But not tonight.”

To his relief, Saiko nods in understanding. “If you ever need someone to listen to you, just remember Saiko’s here.”

“I’ll put that in mind,” Hide promises, managing to offer her a small smile. He then reaches to pat the top of her head. “Thanks so much.”

And without a warning, Saiko steps forward and hugs him around his shoulders, catching him so badly off guard that he completely freezes up. She then gives him a tiny squeeze before releasing him just as abruptly in a few seconds, wordlessly leaving the room right after. Hide’s pretty sure his face is the epitome of stupid as he stares after her with his eyes wide and his mouth slightly agape, not quite understanding what has happened until a full two minutes later.

She’s seen right through him once again, hasn’t she? Hide lets out a weary chuckle, bowing his head to press his hand against his eyes.

He really is hopeless, huh?

xXx

Haise still fails to understand how Hide’s able to act so ridiculously normal even after the conversation they had.

Where does all that willpower and skill not to let his true feelings show even come from? Haise’s baffled. He’s seen how close Hide is to breaking point, and yet the guy himself is just going around making jokes and acting his sunshiny self in front of others as though he barely has a care in the world. Part of him is involuntarily impressed, while the rest of him is simply dismayed by the way he’s shouldering all this by himself. Just how much more can he take before he finally falls apart?

Haise wants to support Hide, just like how the latter has always been doing so for  him. He refuses to let things stay so ridiculously one-sided. But he has no clue what he can do to help apart from going along with his nonchalant pretending. There has to be something else that’s within his capabilities. He can’t be that incompetent even in helping the people important to him, can he?

Even so, Haise does not know enough about the entire matter to properly decide on his actions. He still doesn’t know Hide’s reasons for going so far, and Hide’s refusal to tell him isn’t helping. Who else could he ask for answers? The higher-ups? Director Washuu? Akira-san? Haise can’t exactly risk involving so many people, either, lest he accidentally endangers Hide’s position in the process.

Though actually, there’s one more person he can ask. In fact, this method probably has the lowest risk and is possibly the easiest way for him to obtain what he wants to know. Hide mentioned that he probably has it figured out already, meaning he should more or less know what’s going on. Maybe he could tell him some things and give him some clues to make sense out of this entire mess.

Only then, there’s a problem.

He’s gone.

Haise isn’t exaggerating. The entity inside his mind whom he’s always considered as a manifestation of who he was before he lost his memories - he seems to have suddenly disappeared.

There have been signs of it happening for a while now - with him being unusually silent and docile lately - but it all started becoming obvious the night Haise confronted Hide about his relation to him in the past. He’d somehow slipped into yet another blank dream that night even after all his agitation, and he’d woken up with a strange sensation he can’t quite describe the next morning. It’s just a general feeling of unease at first; something Haise thought was normal after what he’d seen and heard the night before. Anyone would’ve been unsettled after discovering something as big as that, right?

But as the days progressed and the discomfort only grew stronger instead of subsiding, Haise gradually realizes that there’s more to it. The moment he woke from his third consecutive dream of nothingness in the wee hours of the morning feeling an overwhelming sense of isolation even worse than those he had before, he knows something is definitely wrong. He’s no longer getting random glimpses of memories, nor does he find himself in that checkered chamber anymore. The ringing and soreness in his ear have stopped. He can’t hear his voice, either, and even his reluctant attempts to call out to him when he’s awake bear no results.

He’s gone. He doesn’t know how he knows with such clarity, but inner him is no longer there.

Unfortunately, Haise isn’t reveling while feeling immensely relieved of a burden upon the discovery. Instead, there’s a painfully hollow feeling in his chest. Something in him feels even more incomplete than before, and the  constant sense of loneliness he’s begun to experience almost has a crippling intensity.

He doesn’t tell anyone this, of course. Especially not Hide. Even though he has the notion that something about this entire matter is related to the blond somehow, he doesn’t tell him. He doesn’t know how to. Besides, there’s no point of burdening him more with this information when he’s already bearing so much. No, Haise makes up his mind to carry this weight himself. He’s done being reliant on other people.

Even as he goes on working to bottle up his own problems, Haise still manages to notice something not quite right about Hide. It happens a little later that morning, a few hours after he’d slipped into a sort of doze after the first time he stirred from his slumber. When Haise returns to his room to wake Hide up after his shower like always, he finds him sitting upright on the bed, his gaze unfocused and his expression pensive. The atmosphere in the room feels strangely fragile, and Haise’s actually worried he’ll shatter something if he speaks.

To his relief, Hide shortly notices him standing at the doorway, and with his lips curling into a somewhat wistful smile, he quietly gestures for him to come closer. Haise obliges without question, closing the door behind him before making his way towards Hide’s side.

“Can you turn around?” Hide asks when he’s stopped next to him, his voice still a whisper. Haise once again does as he requests without a word, turning on his heels so that he’s standing facing away from his companion. He jolts slightly when Hide eases his forehead gently against his lower back, a long sigh escaping his lips as he does so. Despite the simplicity of the gesture, Haise senses a certain intimacy behind it, and the realization sends tingles all the way to his fingertips. The empty feeling in his chest grows painful.

“Hide-“

Hide inhales a sharp breath just when Haise works up the courage to speak, leaning back from his position so they’re no longer in contact. There’s the rustling of sheets, and when Haise twists to look over his shoulder, he realizes that Hide’s now standing up, the melancholy from earlier now nothing more than a mere shadow across his features.

Wokayy - recharge complete!” Hide proclaims as he saunters past him without as much as a glance at his direction, lifting his arms over his head in a stretch. Haise’s only able to stand rooted in place and stare after him dumbfounded, not quite comprehending the flow of events. What was that all about?

Hide’s visibly more withdrawn the rest of the day, to the point that even the Quinx asks him if he’s not feeling well or anything. No one’s surprised when he easily dismisses their concerns with a bright grin and a lighthearted laugh, but no one’s inclined to question him when he doesn’t make the effort to step up his cheeriness, either. Even energetic people like Hide are bound to have certain days that mean something to them, they know that too well. After all, he too, has suffered loss just like the rest of them.

Haise guesses it must’ve been quite a painful loss, for Hide to actually fail in completely concealing it.

“Hey, Haise?”

The both of them are now lying back to back, their blankets pulled all the way up to their ears. Haise could feel the slight vibration on his back when Hide speaks. It’s another freezing night, and it’s Haise who’d taken the initiative to propose sharing a little bit more of their body heat for the occasion. It’s the only other way he could think of that doesn’t involve cuddling, and though he can tell Hide definitely needs a hug today, he’s reluctant to test his boundaries. So instead, he only reaches for Hide’s hand with his own and holds on to it, hoping he’s able to relay at least even a little bit of his own reassurance this way.

“Yeah?” Haise answers, pausing from massaging his thumb against the base of Hide’s palm. Hide shifts slightly so that he’s talking a little over his shoulder.

“What would you like for Christmas?” he asks, a bit of his childish excitement returning to his voice at the mention of the event. It’s not forced and his enthusiasm is still as contagious as it has always been. Despite everything, Haise feels his own lips forming into a small, amused smile.

“I haven’t decided yet,” he replies, leaning a little closer against Hide to savor just a little more of his gentle warmth. With a short, breathless chuckle, Hide indulges him further by taking over his role of rubbing circles onto his palm with his thumb.

“Well, you’ve got exactly three days to make up your mind before my last-minute shopping on Christmas Eve,” he tells him, and Haise’s smile widens by a fraction. They both know full well that even if he does decide, there will be no Christmas celebration for them unless they manage to solve their current case soon. Still, it’s a pleasant thought. Miles better than a few other topics, really.

“What about you? Anything you want?” Haise asks in return, relishing the chance to keep their conversation light while he still can. When Hide shrugs nonchalantly, Haise’s quick to protest. “You can’t seriously expect me to not get you anything when you’re already planning what to give me.”

“You do know that I’ll love whatever you get for me, right?” Hide tells him earnestly. Still, it isn’t solid enough of an answer. Hide must’ve sensed his dissatisfaction because he soon breaks into another series of chuckles, and says, “Oh, fine, fine. You want to know what I really want?”

Haise waits, using his silence as a prompt for him to continue. He hears Hide take a deep breath and he, in turn, holds his.

“A new mug would be nice,” Hide manages to say in all seriousness before cracking up a little. “Oh, and I guess having Kuki finally call me by my name would be pretty awesome, too.”

“I thought Urie-kun does call you by name now,” Haise says, unable to stop the mirth from coloring his voice once the tension leaves his body as abruptly as it’d arrived. Honestly, he was kind of expecting him to say something else. Hide has dropped enough bombshells to make him start feeling wary by now.

“All he ever calls me is ‘Rank 1 Nagachika’ or ‘Nagachika-san’!” Hide whines, pitching his voice slightly lower whenever he says his name. Haise giggles, despite himself. “Asking him to call me ‘Papa’ would probably be the same as asking him to eat my week-old sock, but it’d be nice for him to at least call me ‘Hide-san’ like everyone else does!”

“Why don’t you just talk to him about it, then?” Haise suggests, idly hooking his fingers with Hide’s when his thumb stops moving.

“You think he’d listen?” Hide doesn’t sound hopeful.

“Probably not.”

“See? This is why I need a Christmas miracle.”

“Point taken.” Haise allows a brief moment of silence to befall them before he continues. “But enough of all that; we should really go to sleep. We’ve got another long day tomorrow.”

“Mmhmm,” Hide agrees, his fingers curling a little tighter around Haise’s own. Haise feels the rest of his body relaxing a little more against the mattress. “Night, buddy.”

“Good night, Hide,” Haise replies, yawning before snuggling deeper into the sheets himself. He then closes his eyes, and soon enough, he slips into oblivion.

xXx

It’s dark.

Haise sees nothing, hears nothing, feels nothing. There’s no left or right, up or down. All around him is a void, except for the solid ground under his feet.

For the past few blank dreams, Haise has tried wandering in the darkness in search for nothing in particular; just to see if the place isn’t completely bare after all. Also, he did that because walking seems to be the right and only thing to do. So he’ll walk and walk and occasionally change direction and keep going, never quite knowing if he’s moving in a straight line or in circles or right side up or upside down.

Though he has yet to find anything from his ventures so far, he has the strangest feeling that it could be different this time. Careful to keep one foot pointed towards the direction he’s started out facing while he moves the other, Haise makes a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn from where he stands. And without really thinking further about it, he starts walking.

He has no idea where he’s going and he’s pretty sure there’s a chance for him to have already crossed this path a few times before during his previous endeavors, but he does have a vague idea on what he’s supposed to be looking for now. Rather, it’s a ‘who’ and not a ‘what’.

Even his footsteps do not produce any sounds despite the concrete firmness he seems to be travelling on, but Haise had gotten quite used to it. He imagines this empty expanse to be part of the deeper corners of his mind where nothing else lay but his bare consciousness. It just occurred to him today after more thinking; that contrary to his earlier beliefs, inner him can’t possibly have disappeared from existence so quickly and willingly. Not when there are things and people he still can’t give up. Not when he knows there are still people out there waiting for him.

He’s in here, in this darkness, somewhere.   

It’s ironic how hard Haise’s searching for him now when he’s still doing his everything to ignore his presence until a little more than a week ago. His change of heart is too sudden and drastic even to his own standards, but Haise has been doing enough pondering. There’s a reason to everything that’s happening around him, and he’s decided to find out what it is, even if it means having to sacrifice his own peace of being as a result. He can’t keep letting himself be sheltered and coddled forever while others suffer in his stead. He can’t let fear control him forever.

Haise keeps walking, staring straight ahead. Time has no meaning here, and his legs don’t seem to be getting tired despite it feeling like he’s been going on since forever. So he keeps moving, on and on. On and on.

On and on.

And finally, just when he thinks it should about time for him to wake soon, he stops.

He’s there, right in front of him. Sitting curled up on the floor with his legs drawn towards his chest and his face buried on his knees. His clothes consists of a normal button-up shirt and a pair of dark trousers. His snowy white hair looks impossibly stark against the nothingness around them, giving the impression that it’s glowing. Maybe it really is. He looks just a little younger than Haise himself. He doesn’t show any signs of responding towards his arrival.  

Haise bends, and sits down cross-legged across him.

“Hey,” he says. He doesn’t expect a reply, and he doesn’t get one. He slips into a lapse of silence, taking in the sight of the boy before his eyes; his appearance, his familiarity. The frailness in his posture and the way his fingers dig into the sides of his knees. This is the him from the past, all first twenty years of him. This is the him before he was Sasaki Haise, before his memories were wiped clean. This is the him whom he’d feared and avoided over the years because he thought he was too strong, too violent.

This is Kaneki Ken.

“Why did you find me?”

It’s him who breaks the quietness first. His face remains hidden, hence his words are slightly stifled. Even so, Haise hears him just fine.

“Why did you suddenly leave?” Haise returns, so genuinely curious that he doesn’t realize the ridicule of the question at first.

“Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted to happen? For me to leave forever?” Kaneki doesn’t waste his chance to scoff at that, his voice laced with bitterness. When Haise makes no move deny his statement, he sighs, sounding so, so weary. “If this is what Hide thinks is for the best, then I will gladly abide to it.”

“But you’re not happy about it,” Haise protests, still finding it rather difficult to believe that this vulnerable person is the very same one who has shown him all kinds of terrible nightmares over the years, who’s taunted day and night and basically made some of his days more miserable than they already were. Which exactly is the real him? The aggressive one? The fragile one? Or was he aggressive because he was fragile? Because he so badly wanted not to be forgotten? “We both aren’t.”

“Hide’s already come this far,” Kaneki tells him, shifting to look up at last. Haise soon finds himself gazing at his own face; the same large grey eyes, the same curve of his nose and set of his mouth. Apart from the obvious resignation written all over Kaneki’s features, they’re identical. “I won’t let us possibly ruin everything he’s worked for. He’s right about how it’s better for you not to remember and start over. You won’t want to know what I’ve been through.”

“Even the happier moments? The times with Hide?” Haise demands because there’s no way he’d never been joyful even once in his first twenty years of life. Especially when he had Hide with him. Hide, who brings so much comfort just by being there and who could brighten even the dullest and dimmest of days. Hide, whom he must’ve held so dear judging from how desperately he reacted when his life was in danger, how he’d also blamed himself over and over when he lost control accidentally hurt him.

“You can’t choose what to recall, Haise,” Kaneki says with a weak glare towards his direction. “You either remember everything, or none at all. I’d prefer it to be the latter if I were you.” He pauses, glancing away before adding quietly, “The bad things definitely outnumber the good ones.”

“Then what about the memories that I’ve been seeing on and off?” Haise asks because that’s what he thought so too. He can’t choose what he remembers and what he doesn’t. Yet those visions just come to him by themselves, completely without the consent of the entity guarding them from him.

Kaneki purses his lips, apparently not quite understanding the occurrence as well. “Maybe it’s because our minds are linked,” he begins thoughtfully. “It’s like Hide said; you and I are part of the same person. It might not take much for you to remember some things, as long as you don’t reject the recollections.”

“And you still think you’ll be able to keep them from me,” Haise says without sarcasm, a mere statement of his observation. Kaneki’s gaze remain averted.

“I’ve done it for so long, and I can keep on doing it,” he says evenly, though it sounds to Haise a little like he’s trying to convince himself as well. “And why are you suddenly so keen on getting them back anyway? You should’ve stayed ignorant and just let things be as they are.”

“I would’ve done that,” Haise assures, and this time, Kaneki does resume looking at him. Haise stares back at those grey eyes matching his own, hoping to be able to convey his earnestness through his gaze. “Believe me, I would’ve done that. But then I realized what both you and Hide are possibly going through because of me, and I just can’t bring myself to do nothing about it. If regaining my memories is the only way to help me understand the situation better and help, so be it.”

“You don’t know what you’ll be getting yourself into, Haise,” Kaneki warns darkly. “This isn’t just about you.”

“I know that,” Haise sighs in exasperation, raking his fingers through his hair. “I know I’m being selfish about all this, but I’m just so tired of not being able to do anything when there are others getting hurt for my sake.” He reaches out, stopping just an inch before he touches his companion’s arm, his tone significantly softer. “And that includes you, too. You’ve been lonely all this while, haven’t you?”

And from the way Kaneki’s expression falters, Haise knows he’s right. But instead of opening up, Kaneki instantly shrinks back, once again hiding his face behind his arms and knees. Ah, Haise’s beginning to see the similarities between them now. “It doesn’t matter even if I am - I still can’t let you remember. There’ll be too many consequences and - and-“

“I know,” Haise says, gently cutting him off. “I know that just as well as you do. But that’s okay - we’ll be able figure it out together, you and I. I’m sure of that.” He leans forward, and places his hand on Kaneki’s arm for real this time, feeling the other flinch under his touch. “I’ve always rejected you without realizing what you’re going through, but that stops now. I won’t let you endure this all alone any longer, Ken. We’ve got friends as well as each other. We’ll work things out together; I promise we will.”

Kaneki curls up a little bit tighter. “Please, Haise,” he begs, his voice a raw whisper. “Please don’t let me disappear.”

“I won’t, Ken,” Haise vows, moving to pull him into a tender embrace. Contrary to his expectations, he’s warm.  Alive. “I won’t.”

And as the world around him gradually fades out, the scattered fragments of his recollections slowly begin patching themselves back together, bit by bit. Tiny pieces of memories are eventually formed, and gaping holes are filled, little by little.

And Haise, for the first time ever since he first woke up as Sasaki Haise and not Kaneki Ken, finally starts to feel whole again.

xXx

It’s one of those times when Hide randomly stirs from his sleep even though he’s left undisturbed.

He keeps his eyes closed, not wanting to wake himself any more than he already has. He hears the faint chirping of birds outside, so he guesses it’s early morning, probably a little after sunrise. There’s a layer of warmth on the side of his cheek that’s not pressed against the pillow, and he’s promptly confused for a moment, his drowsy brain temporarily failing to process the sensation.

When it doesn’t leave even after a while, very reluctantly, he opens his eyes to see.

Gentle rays of sunlight streams in through the drawn curtains, giving Hide just enough illumination to make out more than mere silhouettes. The first thing he registers is the fact that he’s currently lying facing Haise, and that Haise’s awake and that it’s his hand on his cheek and his touch is most probably what woke him. Hide’s thoughts are then abruptly cut off from there onwards because Haise’s staring at him with a look that makes his chest instantly constrict because he knows that look and it’s been so long and no it can’t be it’s just his sleep-deprived brain making silly assumptions again it’s not-

A tiny smile graces Haise’s lips at the sight of him awake, and Hide’s heart stops beating. “Hide.”

No. No, this can’t be happening. He knows it can’t. There’s no way. He’s made sure there’s no way. But the way he says his name, the way he’s gazing at him just like how he used to, the ways he misses so, so much - Hide refuses to believe it, refuses to let himself hope once more because it must be a dream and it isn’t possible it shouldn’t be possible yet every fiber of his being is just screaming at him that it is, it is, it is and that he’s-

Kaneki..?

Chapter Text

Hide feels like he's hyperventilating again.

He couldn’t seem to breathe; his palms sweaty, his fingers numb. His heart feels like it’s stopped beating longer than it should. However, these myriad of sensations only work to further assure him that he’s not dreaming and that this isn’t just his imagination. That it’s all real and that-

“It’s me, Hide,” Haise affirms quietly, affectionately. He removes his hand from Hide’s cheek, moving to trace his fingertips along the outline of his face. “It’s me.”

You remember?” are the first words Hide manages to say when he finds his voice again amid his stunned stupor. When Haise nods, still wearing that tender, tender smile, the unrelenting wall of numbness in his chest finally begins to crumble; replaced by a tight, wrenching knot.

“It’s only bits and pieces for now,” Haise admits, sounding slightly apologetic for a reason Hide can’t fathom, “but it’s enough for me to know who you are, Hide.”

“Kaneki.” Hide reaches to clutch Haise’s hand tight, the tears spilling from his eyes before he’s able to hold them back. “Kaneki, Kaneki,” he chokes out over and over; the name of he hadn’t called for what felt like an eternity. The name he thought he would never have the chance to call ever again. All those worries about the result of Haise regaining his memories, all those months and years of telling himself that nothing else matters as long as his best friend’s able to live on - Hide just can’t bring himself to care about any of those at the moment. All he cares now is that this second, this minute, he’s seeing his best friend. He’s seeing him whole again.

The twin pools of grey that gazes back at him are brighter than usual, but Haise doesn’t cry when he slowly pulls him into an embrace. Hide somehow manages to command his arms to move and return the hug, pulling Haise so close that he’s almost sure he’ll suffocate him. Even so, Haise only squeezes back with every bit as much fervor, presumably also to find assurance from the solid form in his hold. Hide buries his face in Haise’s chest just as the first sob escapes his lips, not wanting to let him see this weak, ugly side of him even when he can’t help it.

“I’m sorry, Kaneki,” he says between gasps for breath, working to regain control of the flood of emotions that are bursting forth. His throat feels incredibly raw, and his voice comes out strained and hoarse and generally sounding wrong. “I’m so sorry for everything.“

“It’s okay, Hide,” Haise shushes him gently, threading his fingers through his hair. “It’s okay. You don’t have to apologize.”

“It’s my fault,” Hide goes on anyway, the words he’s always wanted to say but never had the chance tumbling out in a barely restrained torrent. “If only I’d been there for you since the beginning - if only I’d spoken up sooner - things could’ve been different and you wouldn’t have had to go through everything you’ve gone through and all these wouldn’t have-”

“You’re here for me now, aren’t you?” Haise’s voice begins to waver, but he goes on, “you don’t have to blame yourself for everything, Hide. Besides,” his tone drops to murmur tinged with remorse, “I’m sure I’ve made a lot of mistakes, too. I should be the one to apologize.”

“There were a lot of things beyond your control, Kaneki,” Hide reasons, swallowing to ease the dryness in his throat once he’s finally able to start regaining command of his emotions. He leans back slightly to see Haise shaking his head.

“There were also a lot of things that I could control,” Haise says, his carefully maintained expression slowly crumpling as he keeps talking. “I still haven’t remembered everything, but I know I’ve made bad decisions because of my own selfishness. I’ve hurt many people with my actions – especially you, Hide.” The first droplets of tears trickles from his eyes. “That’s why I’m so sorry; for everything you had to go through for and because of me.”

“You only did what you had to, Kaneki,” Hide tells him, cupping Haise’s cheeks with his hands and holding his gaze firmly. It’s almost laughable, how quickly their roles are exchanged. “And I did what I wanted to, so please don’t beat yourself up over it. Not everything’s your fault.” He then takes a deep breath, and somehow manages a watery smile, his voice breaking. “Though what I said could very well be applied to myself as well, huh?”

And at that, Haise lets out a slight, breathless laugh. “I’m glad you noticed,” he says, and Hide’s grin widens a little more as he moves to brush his companion’s tears away with the base of his thumb. He figures they must be quite a sight; two young adults alternating between crying and giggling while holding each other in their arms as though they’re afraid one of them could disappear any minute. Which, isn’t far from the truth in Hide’s case, really.

“We’re both so hopeless, geez,” Hide muses in a rough whisper. Staring into Haise’s eyes then, he can’t help but notice something that wasn’t there before. He can’t exactly describe what that ‘something’ is or how it’s like, but it’s there; a sort of solidity, certainty. A sort of recognition. Hide doesn’t know if Fate will once again decide to laugh at his face, but for now at least, the person before him is both Kaneki Ken and Sasaki Haise. His most precious person. His everything.

“We’ve been best friends since forever, Hide,” Haise says, and Hide’s breath hitches against his will when he detects a slightly joyful lilt to his voice. “I guess we should’ve expected to rub some traits off each other.”

“I guess you’re right,” Hide agrees with a chuckle, fighting yet another internal battle to keep his emotions in check. Kaneki sees him as his best friend as well. It’s not one-sided. Hide knows it’s stupid and childish and utterly self-centered of him to have actually thought otherwise a few times before, but he hadn’t been able to stop the bitter thoughts from intruding his mind. Even though he knows that it’s simply Kaneki’s nature to keep his problems to himself, that he’s just not the type of person who likes to voice his problems (that’s the reason why Hide’s always keeping an eye on him in the first place), Hide sometimes couldn’t help but feel as though he didn’t trust him enough. That maybe he’s the only one who’s so attached. That perhaps he’s been fooling himself all along thinking he meant to Kaneki as much as Kaneki meant to him.

“Hide?” Haise speaks after a short moment of silence, and Hide hums, wordlessly prompting him to go on without taking his eyes off him. He watches as Haise’s eyebrows knit slightly, his smile wavering when he takes in a breath, and says;

“I’m back, Hide.”

And Hide chokes up, all his efforts not to be a pathetic crybaby thrown out the window without as much as a second thought. He once again pulls Haise close - perhaps even closer than before - and mustering all his coherency to voice it in a single try, he replies;

“Welcome back, Kaneki.”

xXx

It takes a while for Haise to sort everything out.

His memories are returning to him in random bursts, and though it’s technically only been a few hours, he’s already getting slightly disorientated. It’s mostly because they tend to pop up in no particular order, and it takes effort for him to piece some together and at least estimate at which point in his life did a particular occurrence take place. There are still some recollections that aren’t detailed enough for him to comprehend them - like the memory of white paper flowers, for example - but he’s sure they’ll start making sense eventually.

If anything, most of what Haise’s starting to remember mainly has something to do with Hide, for some reason. Maybe it’s because he already has the foundation to the memories from the glimpses he’s seen. Maybe it’s because Hide’s the most immediate prompt since he’s the closest person to him who’s tied to his past. Or maybe it’s simply because Hide had (and still has) a huge impact on his life. Haise remembers some of the more prominent times of his earlier days with the blond; lonely nights with silly text messages, quiet evenings spent hanging out at their favorite playground, mornings that somehow become brighter whenever the two of them caught up with each other at their usual meeting spot before they proceeded the rest of their way to school. He remembers his fondness towards Hide, his gratefulness for his existence, his possibly sole dependence on the affection he offers. His fierce protectiveness, his mistakes because of that fierce protectiveness. His regrets.

Haise knows his past isn’t scarcely as pleasant as these little fragments of memory portray it to be. He’s already been warned twice so far, both times by the people who knows him better than anyone else - one being part of himself while the other his best friend since he was a child. There’ll be things that once scarred him and will scar him again, things that would most likely make him wish he’d lived on without ever knowing again. Still, those are also the things that shaped who he was and possibly determine who he will be from now onwards, and he’s not backing down from his decision to embrace and live with them.

Haise wants to maintain his identity as Sasaki Haise while he tries to assimilate his self as Kaneki Ken, and that’s where his initial confusion mainly sets in. Which exactly should he mainly identify as? The him of his first twenty years? The him of his last two and a half years? And then it occurs to him that he’s still doing what he’s been doing all along - he’s still discriminating the different aspects of himself as two separate people. That can’t do. Those twenty-two and a half years are all his. Until he accepts that he’s both Sasaki Haise and Kaneki Ken, he’ll never be able to find peace in being the both of them at once.

Haise eventually manages to make up his mind, deciding to publicly go on as ‘Sasaki Haise’ because that’s just who he is presently. He’s no longer ‘Kaneki Ken’ of the past. He’s changed. What's more, Hide has hinted enough about the risks of him regaining his memories through his words and actions. Until he’s fully certain of what’s going on - or knows enough to take the proper precautions and countermeasures, to the very least - Haise can’t let it be known that he’s beginning to recall who he used to be. Not yet.  

However, he’ll still keep the name ‘Kaneki Ken’, for the sake of those he’d met throughout his first twenty years. For the sake of those whom he still has the chance to meet again. And for his own sake as well because even though Hide claims he’s okay with calling him whatever he’s comfortable with, Haise can’t seem to bear hearing him call him anything other than the name he’s been using since childhood. Everything else can change; Haise would want to cling on to just this one insignificance.

Haise winces when he feels a sharp pain abruptly flare up at the back of his skull, all the way to the back of his eyes. He takes a deep breath in an attempt to ease the throbbing ache, working to let the warm spray of the shower sooth his tense muscles. It almost feels like someone has impaled something through his head, and it’s honestly terrifying. The vibe he gets from the sensation strangely reminds him of the ringing in his ear from before. Haise gets the feeling these are tied to his memories somehow, and despite all his big talk, it’s still a scary notion. What exactly has he been through? What exactly will he be remembering?

Corpses. Lots of them. The stench of death and rotting bodies. The buzzing patter of rain. The roar of water flooding downwards. Someone standing among the corpses, clad in white. Blood, so much blood. Haise slaps a hand over his mouth, biting into the flesh of his fingers in his struggle to fight back the sudden rising wave of nausea. This is.. a memory? It’s slightly fuzzier than those he’d seen so far; the images are more warped, the colors too bright one second and completely dull the other. Upside down, right side up. Spinning, spinning, spinning.

Haise stumbles to lean against the cold tiled wall, the sharp taste of his own blood managing to jar him back to reality. The back of his eyeballs throbs, and black spots dance in his vision. With a trembling hand, he manages to shut the flow of water, and he stands in silence, his breathing heavy, his heart slamming repeatedly against his ribcage. He closes his eyes and uncovers his mouth, inhaling deeply. Once, twice. He tries to focus on the smell of soap and the cold rapidly seeping into his skin to keep him anchored to his surroundings. It’s over, he tells himself firmly, digging his nails into his palms. All that’s over.

Haise doesn’t know how long it took for him to finally calm down, but he eventually does. He only notices he’s shivering when he’s wiping himself dry; from the low temperature and presumably something else. That recollection, despite being unclear, is fresh. That’s what he senses so. It’s of one of the more recent happenings. But what’s the context? He was fighting, but with whom? For what?

Part of him is scared to know.

Haise nearly collides with Hide the moment he steps out of the bathroom after dressing himself. Quick apologies are then overlapped, and despite everything, Haise manages to respond to Hide’s awkward chuckle with a weak giggle of his own. When their eyes meet a moment later, Haise notices that Hide’s still wearing that certain look that he can’t quite describe. Perhaps tentative would be a suitable word to use; Hide still looks at him as though he’s constantly expecting something bad to happen, as though he would disappear just like that any moment now.

“You were taking a little longer than usual,” Hide explains before Haise’s able to ask why he was hanging around right outside his door, his tone tinged with nervousness. “And I was worried if anything happened and-“

“I’m fine, Hide,” Haise assures with as much casualness as he can muster, subconsciously touching his chin. He tries not to look away when Hide shoots him a doubtful stare, his features set in a slight frown.

“But you look pale,” Hide observes, and Haise really hates how attentive he is sometimes. Has been dreading it ever since he was younger because it’s just so difficult to properly conceal things from him when he’s always watching over him so closely.

“I’m just feeling a little cold,” Haise admits, averting his gaze this time as he rubs his arm. It’s not a lie; he’s still shivering quite a bit even after putting on his clothes. Staying still while he’s naked and soaking wet early in a winter morning was seriously a terrible idea - though it’s not like he was in the right state of mind to actually care that moment. “I’ll be alright after a while, so don’t worry about it.”

Kaneki.”

The firmness in Hide’s voice when he drawls out every syllable of his name compels Haise to focus on him once more. Hide’s features are still set in a disapproving frown, but his arms are slightly spread in silent invitation. The temptation is far stronger than Haise expects it to be, and he shortly finds himself stepping forward and letting Hide pull him towards him; relaxing against the warmth of his touch. He fails to restrain a soft sigh when Hide moves to run his hand up and down his back in a soothing rhythm, successfully coaxing the last of the tension from his muscles. 

Hide doesn’t point out how his skin is probably freezing cold even when he gently presses his cheek against his, his fingers combing through his hair the way he likes so much. Haise has a small, nagging urge to pull away before someone sees them, but most of him can’t seem to care. Besides, they’re actually a little early and the kids usually don’t wake until around thirty minutes later. Haise just wants them to stay like this a little longer; in this silence, in this comfort.

“I’m here, you know,” Hide tells him softly, as if he’s somehow found out about Haise’s latest remembrance. “If there’s anything bothering you - if you recall something you don’t think you can bear alone, I’m here. I’ll always be here.”

And slowly, Haise nods, fingers curling into the back of Hide’s shirt as he lets his words sink in. He’s always been trying to get that message across, hasn’t he? All the way from the time when they were kids to the time he was turned into a half-ghoul; to the moment he told him that it’s not healthy to shoulder everything himself the second night after he was transferred into the squad pretending to meet him for the first time. Hide has always been trying to tell him that contrary to what he always thinks, he’s never alone.

Haise figures he really must be a doomed case; to only have understood it now after everything.

“That said,” Hide continues, pushing them slightly apart to look at Haise face to face, his lips curved into a lopsided smile, “you can, like, grab on to my hand or something if you happen to suddenly remember anything unsettling. Anytime, anywhere. Or even better, you can just tell me. I can’t promise I’ll be able to make things any much better, but it seriously helps to just let it out instead of keeping it all to yourself.”

“I don’t see you doing the same, though,” Haise can’t help pointing out, and Hide promptly blanches.

“Ah, what can I say? I thrive on hypocrisy,” he jokes before quickly turning somber again, lowering the volume of his voice once more. “I’m sorry, Kaneki. I.. still need a little more time.”

“Take all the time you need, then.” Haise bows his head slightly to press his nose onto Hide’s shoulder, taking in the latter’s somewhat musty scent. It’s a scent he doesn’t realize how much he misses until that moment - which, is a strange thought by itself  because Hide sleeps next to him and there are plenty of chances for him to catch a whiff of it whether he liked it or not. Maybe it’s because it has just occurred to Haise that he’d always been taking Hide’s existence for granted all along; from childhood all the way to where he is now.

“I’ll look for you once I’ve got it all thought out,” Hide promises, tightening his hug with a tiny squeeze. Haise once again nods without a word, letting them stay how they are a little longer before finally finding enough willpower to gently untangle himself from Hide’s arms, deciding that his body heat has been completely replenished and that he should really go on with his morning duties. He has to; or else the urge to not move from where he is for the rest of the day would grow overwhelming.

“I – should – get going,” Haise mutters haltingly as he takes a step back, his efforts not to sound reluctant failing in a rather spectacular manner. He glances away and feels his cheeks involuntarily burning up when Hide only chuckles lightly in agreement, putting his hands on his shoulders and steering him around as his own way of urging him to go on with what he needs to do.  

“Just be careful not to think too much and burn something, yeah?” Hide tells him, mirth coloring his voice. Despite himself, Haise feels his own smile tugging at his lips, accompanied by a flutter in his heart.

“Even if I do, I’ll try to make sure it’s your portion,” he says with a playfulness he didn’t expect to have, grin widening when Hide promptly feigns a look of utter betrayal at him.

“I thought we were best friends, Kaneki!”

xXx

Once his emotions finally calms down, Hide begins to worry.

He thinks they could probably handle hiding the fact that Haise’s starting to accept his past self long enough for them to figure out a solid plan – Hide’s spent so many years keeping things from the world, after all; it’s just the return of Haise’s memories that’s bothering him. 

The irony in the previous statement is off the charts, he knows. But it’s true. While he’s happy - elated, really - that Haise’s gradually remembering things and that his best friend is gradually becoming whole again, he’s concerned about how the recollections would affect him. Would he able to handle the knowledge of having done what he did, of the things he’d went through? His guilt? His occasional crossings over the edge towards insanity? Hide has faith in Haise’s mental fortitude, but those experiences are still the ones that broke him in the past, and Hide’s afraid that they’ll break him again. There’s a reason Hide decided it was for the best for him to forget everything, after all. Nobody needs to remember that the more recent years of their life had been close to a living nightmare.

And of course, his best friend’s tendency of bearing everything alone doesn’t exactly give him the ease he wants. He was too late the previous time, but Hide has made sure not to waste his second chance to tell him what he couldn’t all those years ago; that no matter what, he’ll always have him and that he’ll help carry his burden if it ever becomes too much. Still, Hide knows Kaneki. He’ll probably think he’s going to be bothersome and that Hide is already having too much on his shoulders and all sorts of nonsense along that line. Well. Hide guesses he’ll just have to keep paying extra attention to him from now on.

Hide inhales a breath, steering his thoughts back to his current situation. They’ve just ended one last meeting with the squad they’re working with in the 9th Ward after having successfully obtained the final piece of information they needed to pursue the ghouls they’re after in their investigation. They were attempting to come up with a solid plan, but really, there’s nothing too complicated about the entire thing. Not in Hide’s personal standards, at least. The ghouls they’re hunting down work in a small group of ten and the strongest two are S-rated at best. The only tricky part was trying to decipher their hunting patterns and predicting their next move – which, is what they’ve already done beforehand. As such, they’re now heading out to finish off the job.

Hide glances at Haise through the corner of his eye as he hurries through the back alleys with the rest of the team, led by the local squad they’re partnered with. Haise hasn’t given any obvious indication about the nature of his returning memories, but Hide’s aware of how well he can act normally when he puts effort into it. Then again, it’s not exactly the right place and timing for him to start asking questions and risk throwing Haise off balance during the fieldwork of their mission, either. He seems alright for now, and Hide reluctantly allows himself to believe in that and fret a little less.

They eventually reach the abandoned warehouse they’ve tracked down which their targets are using as a temporary hideout, and Hide stands on guard with the others while a member from their partner squad works to break in through the side entrance. Hide casts his gaze all around, unease rapidly plaguing his thoughts. There are too many blind spots around them; giving them the disadvantage of easily being observed by the other party without them noticing. Urie, Shirazu and Saiko has deemed the coast clear before they proceeded to this point, but Hide still has his doubts. The Quinx’s enhanced senses can only detect stimulus within a certain range. There could be someone watching them all the way from the abandoned building over there, alerting their friends within the warehouse of the presence of a group of unsuspecting Doves. Or there could be someone hiding just behind that corner, waiting for the signal to jump at them when the chance arises. There are too many possibilities, all of them which Hide personally finds highly unfavorable.

Hide’s focus snaps back to his group the second he senses the change in the atmosphere. Shirazu has stepped away from his initial position, and he’s now trying to tell the lead guy something with a series of hand signs. Hide knows that signing is a skill every trainee investigator has to learn when they’re in the Academy, but he figures it mustn’t have been one of the younger boy’s strong points, judging from the way he’s struggling. Nevertheless, Shirazu manages to get his point across in the end despite his messy gestures and barely muffled grunts of frustration.

There are four people waiting for them beyond the door, presumably waiting to launch the ambush that Hide is somewhat expecting. The leader of the other squad quickly comes to a decision and issues his commands via some hand signs of his own; he and his team will do whatever they can to keep whoever’s awaiting them busy while the Quinx squad is to split up, enter through the two remaining entrances and take them out from behind. Hide has to admit he doesn’t quite fancy the plan since there’s still six other ghouls that are yet to be accounted for, but he supposes there are only so many alternatives they take with how things are.

As it is, Hide’s soon bringing Urie and Mutsuki to the entrance at the back of the warehouse, Quinque armed and bracing himself for any sudden attacks. He spots movement from his peripheral around fifteen meters before they reach their designated location, and he’d no sooner shouted for the three of them to scatter when a torrent of crystalline spikes rains down from above, obliterating the concrete ground where they were standing a split second ago. Hide stops running the moment he hears the onslaught stop, turning around and instinctively looking up just in time to react and defend himself from a ghoul jumping down at him from above.

His senses are immediately on high alert mode as he summons the strength to push his attacker off, not even having the chance to catch his breath before he has to block a foot from connecting with the side of his head. Hide hears the breaking of bones, pain shooting up from his forearm all the way to his neck as he’s sent sprawling towards the ground. Gritting his teeth, he rolls away and pushes himself to stand up and run just in time before another wave of sharp projectiles are sent his way, wincing when one lucky shot grazes the side of his leg. Of all ghouls, Hide hates facing ukaku users the most. They’re agile as anything and their kagune spikes are really, really annoying to deal with - especially when his Quinque isn’t exactly built for heavy defense. Not to mention there isn’t anything Hide can use for a shield of sorts around him, making confronting his opponent even more difficult than it already is. For all he knows, this entire thing has probably been planned out beforehand.

Urie and Mutsuki are each occupied with ghouls of their own, so Hide figures he won’t be expecting any backup soon. He doesn’t think he could plan for a switch, either; he’s not sure how well the kids can stand their ground against an S-rated ghoul. Hide guesses he has no choice but to try harder and hope he doesn’t get himself killed in the process. Feeling the bones of his broken arm mending, he inhales sharply, and before he can start regretting his life choices all over again, he charges towards the ghoul.

The next few minutes passes in a flurry of movements too intense for Hide’s mind to keep track of in detail. All he remembers is a bunch of dodging, deflecting, internal swearing, and a rush of unexplainable triumph when he finally manages to get his opponent within the range of his weapon so he can start landing actual hits. Still, the ghoul he’s facing is strong, and Hide can’t honestly expect to be able to handle the entire ordeal alone without some luck and being beaten up a bit. Luckily for him, he’s feeling rather motivated that day, and he successfully holds out long enough for the two younger boys to finish off their own ghouls and lend him the assistance he needs to land the killing blow in the end.

And Hide’s just about to give himself a short, congratulatory breather before proceeding to carry out the rest of the command issued to him and his group when his earpiece cackles to life, reminding him of its long-forgotten presence. All he hears is static at first, owing to their terrible connection. Then a familiar voice sounds in his ear.

“Hide-san.” With a start, Hide realizes it’s Shirazu. The anxiety in his voice immediately puts him on edge. “T-There’s something wrong with Sassan.”

He stops there, but Hide doesn’t need any further elaboration. The amount of willpower it takes for him to not bolt directly to where Haise is the moment he processes Shirazu’s words is ridiculous. He grips the hilt of his Quinque hard enough to start hurting, and with effort, he bites out a tight ‘I’ll be right over.”

His apprehension must’ve been painfully obvious, because when he turns to face Mutsuki and Urie later, the former speaks up before he could even say a word.

“We’ll be able to continue by ourselves from here, Hide-san,” Mutsuki tells him, bearing a newfound confidence Hide couldn’t help noticing, despite everything. He really has grown a bit since the last time; which is great, really. “So go do what you have to do.”

“I’m sorry, guys,” Hide apologizes anyway, but Mutsuki only smiles and shakes his head, while Urie looks like he wouldn’t be bothered either way. Deciding that these two really are capable of taking care of themselves (at least to an extent enough to keep themselves alive), Hide forces down his feeling of guilt and turns on his heels.

And praying for things to not be as serious as he fears, he starts running.

Hide stops right after narrowly avoiding tripping over a dead body.

The battle at Haise, Shirazu and Saiko’s side has also ended, and as Hide searches around for his best friend, he halfheartedly notes that the rest of the remaining ghouls have been taken down. He soon spots the three of his teammates gathered nearby a wall and hurries towards them, mentally preparing himself for the worst so he wouldn’t be too overwhelmed to react if things really are that terrible. Then again, since Haise isn’t trashing around with his kagune out of control (again), he dares himself to consider the situation a tad bit better than what he’s expecting.

Saiko notices him approaching first, and Hide tries not to let the concern written all over her features encourage him to start freaking out in earnest. Shirazu shoots him a quick, nervous glance when Saiko nudges him to alert him of his arrival, then stepping aside and giving Hide a better view of their mentor.

Haise’s squatting down on the ground; shoulders hunched, head bent forward and hands clamped over his ears. His fringe covers his face in this position, but Hide doesn’t need to see it to know that he’s in distress. Ah, just when Hide’s convinced himself that things could be a little okay. It must’ve been the fighting that triggered something; some sort of memory horrible enough to make Haise lose his composure like this.

“Can the two of you go on ahead first? I’ll catch up to you guys in a little while,” Hide addresses Saiko and Shirazu in a whisper once he’s walked up to them, afraid that he might aggravate Haise’s condition if he speaks any louder. Frankly, he doesn’t want to leave Haise’s side until everything’s over, but he’s also sure that Haise wouldn’t approve of him endangering the kids for his sake. Hide would simply have to believe that his best friend’s capable of recovering the rest of the way by himself.

“Let’s go, Saiko,” Shirazu urges when Saiko hesitates. “We’ve got a job to do.”

“But-“ Saiko trails off in her protest when Hide places his hand on her shoulder, offering her what he hopes is an assuring smile.

“Your Maman is strong,” he reminds her, willing his optimism not to falter. “He’ll be okay.”

I’ll make sure he is, he doesn’t add. Saiko seems to get the message nonetheless, and with slightly less reluctance than before, she breaks away from Hide’s lose hold, and follows Shirazu towards the location they’ve both been originally assigned with. Hide spares a second to watch them go before moving to crouch down in front of Haise, placing his Quinque on the ground.

“Kaneki?” he starts, raising his voice slightly to make sure he could be heard. “Hey, buddy, it’s me. Hide. I’m here.”

Although all he receives is silence, he takes a breath, waits a few seconds, and presses on. “Mind telling me what’s wrong? Maybe I can help.”

“There’s nothing you can do, Hide,” Haise mutters, so quietly that Hide almost couldn’t catch it. He curls up a little more, making himself look even smaller. “I’ve.. killed so many people.”

And at that, Hide cringes. So he’s remembering those stuff, huh? For a moment, Hide’s at loss on what to do. He can’t tell him his usual assurances on it being alright for once because well, taking lives isn’t exactly considered ‘alright’ no matter how you see it. So he doesn’t.

“I know,” he decides to say instead, reaching to thread his fingers through Haise’s hair. Haise doesn’t relax, but at least he’s not growing any tenser, either.

“I can still hear them, Hide,” he speaks again after a short lapse of silence, surprisingly Hide a little because he seriously didn’t think he’d continue. “I can hear their taunts, their screams, their pleas for me not to kill them. There’s so many voices, so much blood-“

“Kaneki,” Hide interrupts with a gentle call of his name. “Look at me, Kaneki. Please.”

And he waits. He waits and waits until Haise finally finds the courage to do as he says; tentatively lifting his eyes to meet his. Hide holds his gaze, and offers him a smile.

“Do you think you can do me a favor and listen to my voice instead for a little while?” he says, grinning a little wider when Haise nods slowly to his request. “Okay, now let me tell you a story from long, long ago. There once lived a prince in a country flourished with wealth and joy. He was young and courageous, witty and smart. But because he was the crown prince, he’s not allowed to hang out with the other children his age, thus he was always lonely.

“However, as the years passed, a series of unpredictable events led him to befriend the young court jester the King hired to replace the previous one who hurt himself during one of his performances. Despite their positions, the prince and the jester became quite inseparable; often sneaking out at certain times to hang out together when nobody’s around. The prince grew to trust the jester with all his heart, and the sentiment was no different for the jester.” Hide pauses to watch Haise’s eyes widen at his eventual realization towards what he’s talking about before continuing; “one day, the jester simply disappeared without a trace. The prince ignored his father’s warnings and insisted on searching for him everywhere, even going as far as travelling out into the woods by himself to look. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing his one and only friend.”

“And in the woods lived a powerful witch,” Haise carries on for him when he stops for a breath. His voice has stopped shaking, and he seems a bit calmer now. His hands are no longer pressed against his ears. “The prince accidentally stumbled upon her home territory and angered her during his venture one night, but the witch deemed him unworthy of her personal attention. So instead, she sent her servant to deal with him.”

“As they fought, the prince realized that his friend, the jester, had fallen under a spell casted upon him by the evil witch, forcing him to obey to her commands,” Hide takes over again. “Furious and betrayed – but mainly furious – the prince finished his fight quickly, sparing the life of his good friend. Then, he immediately sought to erase the witch. They fought for many hours, and the prince emerged victorious in the end. As a result, the spell controlling the jester was also broken, and he once again returned to his senses.”

“The first thing he did was go to the prince and beg for forgiveness,” Haise says, and Hide nods, quietly encouraging him to go on. “The prince forgave him, of course, but in return, he made him swear his eternal loyalty to him under the flame of the torch he held in his hand. And the jester, without even hesitating, swore on his own life that he’ll always stay by his prince’s side.”

“Come to think of it, there wasn’t really a solid ending to the play, huh?” Hide finishes with a small laugh. He breathes a sigh of relief when Haise reluctantly returns his smile in agreement, his hand slipping from his hair to the side of his jaw. Haise’s skin is cold to his touch. “You feeling better?”

“A little bit,” Haise admits, and Hide beams.

“That’s great,” he says, retracting his hand to work on the buttons of his coat. He has the garment off in a few seconds, and he messily folds it before handing it to his companion. “Can you hold on to this for me while I go join the kids in finishing the job? And no-“ he says when Haise instantly protests about being able to fight, “-I, as your colleague and teammate, deem you unfit for any form of combat. You’ll only hurt yourself in the state you’re in right now, Kaneki.”

“But-“ Haise starts, but Hide’s already standing up, making it obvious that he’s not going to listen.

“Look, buddy, I’d really like to stay and chat, but I’ve got to check on the kids,” Hide tells him, words speeding up because it just occurred to him that he really does need to check on the kids before anything bad happens and he makes another grave mistake. “I’m sorry, but - just - stay put for a while and rest, okay? We’ll come get you when it’s over. I promise.”

Haise looks like he’s about to argue further, and Hide’s ready to gather every shred of his determination to walk away without another word when the former hugs his coat closer towards his chest, and says, “Be careful, Hide.”

“I will,” Hide assures, dreading the necessity to leave him with all his heart. Even so, putting the Quinx in danger wouldn’t make things much better, either. Between their subordinates’ safety and Haise’s own wellbeing, Hide knows Haise would definitely want him to prioritize the kids. Hide spares one last glance towards Haise to make sure he’s fine enough to be on his own, and before his reluctance could set in, he begins heading towards where their teammates are currently at.

xXx

Haise hadn’t intended to panic the moment the memories flooded into his mind. Really, he hadn’t.

Only then it was really too much. This is the one thing he has always dreaded to know the most, and one of his deepest, darkest are proved to be true. He was a killer, a murderer. He'd slain countless ghouls he'd personally deemed potential threats, but that’s not the worst of it. He remembers; the actual enjoyment he’d felt when he took one life after another, the severely contrasting taste between the meat of both humans and ghouls which he’d gorged on, the lingering traces of madness that threaten to overpower his rational thoughts the moment he lets his guard down and get carried away.

Did he have a reason? Was there a reason to all those bloodshed?

What happened in the past is irreversible, Haise knows that. Yet, is it really alright to let such a dangerous creature as himself live on in relative freedom? Even if there are plenty of people around him who’s capable of stopping him if he ever loses his senses? Is it really alright for him to go on living like this?

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I guess having to keep going with that knowledge is a sort of punishment by itself,” Hide says when Haise asks him the exact questions that have been haunting his mind ever since they got back from their mission a couple of days back. “You can try justifying it however you like, but you’ll never forget the guilt, the weight of taking a life with your own hands. You’ll just have to learn to live with it somehow.”

He sounds like he knows exactly what he’s talking about. Haise can’t help but wonder if he’d felt the same when he’d first started out as a ghoul investigator; questioning if it really was right to kill some people who were simply trying to survive with the way they’re born. Haise himself certainly did. Before he can think of an appropriate response, though, a thought abruptly strikes him; a recollection of a particular statement Hide once told him before.

“You said you were the one who had your best friend killed.” Haise stares at his companion, watching closely for any changes in the latter’s expression. It hadn’t been clear earlier with his memories still jumbled up and incomplete, but it’s slowly starting to make sense now; the reason why Hide kept apologizing at the beginning, the reason why he did what he’d done. Vague memories of darkness, sewer stench, blood and fragments of insanity start to resurface. Haise remembers his own desperation to keep fighting because if he doesn’t the people he care for will die the Manager will die he’ll lose them he’ll lose Anteiku and that can’t happen he can’t let that happen there’s a hole on his side and it hurts it hurts it hurts shut up shut up shut up there’s a voice calling his name a voice that wasn’t supposed to be there he’s laughing why is he laughing how could he possibly be joking when-

“I made a deal with the higher-ups of the CCG to spare your life at the cost of erasing your identity as Kaneki Ken,” Hide says after what feels like an eternity of silence, his tone leveled, quiet. When his eyes meets Haise’s, he smiles, a bitter smile. “So in a way, I was the reason you were ‘killed’, Kaneki.”

“And in return for letting me live, you offered to have your body experimented on,” Haise breathes, the reality of it all dawning him. “Even after all those months of leaving you behind, you still came looking for me.”

Ehh, I guess I’m just a loser like that.” Hide chuckles as he scratches his cheek, his usual mirth nowhere to be found. “But really, how could I not when I was fully aware of the crazy things you were doing? I’ve known you for years, man. I know how hopeless you are without me.”

“Even though you also knew what sort of hardship you’ll  be getting yourself into because of me?” Haise demands, wanting to scream in exasperation because why is Hide always doing this? Why is he always, always willing to go such ridiculous lengths for his sake?

Haise watches as Hide breathes a fond, tired sigh at his inquiry before averting his gaze, the corners of his lips still lifted in that impossibly kind smile of his.

“You know, Kaneki,” he begins slowly, staring at his own hands as he speaks. “During that point in time, I couldn’t care less about what I have to endure as long as I was able to keep you alive. If having to be turned into some sort of human test subject is what it takes to save you, then so be it. Besides,” he shrugs slightly, looking up to meet Haise’s gaze again, his amber eyes soft with unconcealed affection. “I thought that even if I broke, it’ll still be fine as long as I can use those pieces of myself to keep you from falling apart again.”

And Haise only stares back at him dumbfounded, unable to find the right words to respond to that. There are only so many ways one can react to something that’s simply so selfless yet so utterly foolish. Ah, Haise guesses that’s part of Hide’s character perfectly summed up in a few words; selfless but foolish. He’s always prioritized others above himself, to the point that it’s almost ridiculous. Haise knows he has no say in any of this, but there’s just no reason Hide should willingly suffer so much for another. It’s just not normal and he deserves so much more and-

Haise starts when another fragment of memory begins to return; hazy, fragmented and tinged with surrealism. He focuses at the spot on Hide’s left upper arm, wordlessly reaching to brush his fingertips against the patch of damaged tissue, his throat closing up and his eyes burning from the sudden wave of immense guilt that washes over him.

So that’s it. That’s what happened.

“I was the one who gave you that scar,” he whispers, almost in a trance. He takes a sharp breath and swallows, willing his voice not to quaver as he continues; “It’s because I’m weak, wasn’t it? It’s because I was weak that I couldn’t protect everyone. Not Yoshimura-san and Banjou-san and everyone from Anteiku. Not even you, Hide. It was all my fault that-“

Hold up.” Haise stops when Hide presses his hand against his mouth, effectively cutting him off midsentence. “I thought we were over this nonsense.”

His frown only intensifies when Haise proceeds to voice his protests in a series of muffled noises. Then as if he’d understood a word he said, Hide clicks his tongue disapprovingly.

“Listen, Kaneki,” Hide shifts closer and says, holding his gaze firmly. “First of all, it was by my own decision that I let you eat me, so don’t you go ahead blaming yourself for what I chose to do. I don’t care how highly you think of yourself; I want you to know that you did not, by any means, force me to do what I did. Everything I’ve done - it was all because I wanted to do them, not because you made me, alright?”

And he waits until Haise slowly nods to that before breaking into a smile, retracting his hand. Haise keeps quiet as Hide continues, his tone significantly softer.

“And second of all, I’m pretty sure when everyone fought their battles, it was by their own choices as well,” he says, brushing a lock of Haise’s hair behind his ear with the back of his fingers. “I’m sure they chose to struggle despite knowing the full dangers of their actions. No one expected you to be their hero, Kaneki. No one expected you to come running the moment things got difficult for them and magically make the entire situation better. So please stop,” his gaze turns pleading, “please stop saying everything’s your fault when it’s not, Kaneki. It never was.”

“Hide..” It’s then that it dawns Haise; it’s this tendency of his to shoulder everything that was what caused his downfall in the first place. Hide’s right; he’d thought ridiculously highly of himself. He’d thought that if he tried hard enough, he could save everyone, he could protect them. Stronger. He’d wanted to grow stronger - he had to grow stronger -  which was why he’d killed, he’d devoured, and he’d let himself stray off whatever path he’d set for himself. And by the time he realized how far gone he was, it was too late. There was no going back. There still isn’t.

“This was the reason I didn’t really want you to remember, to be honest,” Hide admits sheepishly, reaching to scratch the back of his head. “You were afraid of your memories from the very start, and I figured recalling about those days shouldn’t be all that easy to stomach.”

With his point already proven, Haise can’t exactly argue. He glances away and purses his lips, forcing himself to think. Past his remorse, past his uninvited guilt. What is he doing? What was his resolve when he decided to remember? What did he tell himself?

“Is there anything we can do for them from now on?” Haise mutters, staring holes into his upturned palms. Slowly, he curls his hands into tight fists. “Is there anything at all that..”

Out of the corner of his eye, he spots Hide shrugging. “I don’t know,” Hide says, voice tinged with the frustration Haise has yet to feel past the crushing sense of helplessness. “I don’t know for now, but I’m sure we’ll be able figure something out when we get there eventually. I promise we will.”

“Okay.” Haise takes a deep breath, holds it, and exhales slowly, unclenching his hands. Calm down. He has to calm down. Take this one step at a time. “Okay.”

“Mmhmm.” Haise doesn’t resist even when Hide gently tugs him towards himself, snaking his arms loosely around his frame. He rests  his head against the crook of his companion’s neck, halfheartedly marveling at how utterly natural the position feels. His ear is pressed just a little below Hide’s collarbone, and when he focuses a little more, he could hear every steady thump of his heart.

He’s not alone. That’s the biggest difference from before, Haise suddenly comes to realize as he listens on to Hide’s strong heartbeat. He’d pushed away those who tried to get close to him the last time, thinking that it was better for him to be alone, for him to be the only one who got hurt. He’d insisted on shouldering too many things by himself, and look where that led him. He has people who are willing to help and support him now. In fact, he’s always had them – only then it has never occurred to him because he’d been so utterly caught up with his own goals and stupid self-centered thinking. He’s always had at least one person who has his back.

“Hey, Hide?” Hesitantly, Haise breaks the silence formed between them, receiving a soft hum from Hide shortly after. “Thank you.”

“I have no idea what for, but you’re welcome, I guess,” Hide chuckles. Listening to Hide’s laugh – his real, colorful laughter – Haise feels a flutter in his heart yet again. The corners of his lips gradually lift into a smile of his own, and he closes his eyes, exhaling a breath as he leans just a little more of his weight against Hide’s chest.

That’s right. No matter what, no matter when, Haise has had Hide all along.

xXx

Bad timing. Haise’s breakdown had bad timing.

Hide would prefer not to have Haise draw attention upon himself now of all times, but who was he trying to kid, really. Things have never been willing to be so easy on them. Hide spends the following days bracing himself to be called out any moment for some questioning regarding Haise’s condition – or even worse, he’s half expecting the higher-ups to interrogate Haise directly. As much as he hates to admit it, Hide seriously doesn’t know what he’ll be able to do if their situation ever leads to the latter. Convincing his best friend and the CCG that they’ll be able to work things out after all that’d happened between both parties doesn’t exactly sound like an easy feat even with Hide’s wicked negotiation skills.

It’s been more than a week since Haise’s memories started coming back for real, and he’s recalling quite a lot, to say the least. He recalls things from random time phases; sometimes with the help of catalysts, other times without. Either way, Hide’s pretty certain the rate in which it’s happening shouldn’t be healthy. Kaneki has experienced so many difficulties throughout the years, and remembering so many things at once couldn’t be easy for him. With all he’d been through, he would definitely need time to let the recollections sink in. Mental instability doesn’t really go away for good – or, at least, not in such a short  span of time without going through some standard procedures. Hide knows taking Kaneki’s reminisces could only do so much.

Out of the nine nights following the event of Haise beginning to remember his past in earnest, Hide has been woken from his sleep in seven of them; jerked awake either by Haise’s crushing grip on his hand or arm, or simply stirring to the way he’s trashing about on bed. And during those fragile, fragile moments, Hide would do everything within his ability to help his best friend calm down; relentlessly muttering assurances, holding him in his arms when he’s not resisting or letting himself be held to let Haise know that unlike those visions, he’s solid and real. Reminding him of the silly, mundane things during the simpler times they shared together or simply making up ridiculous stories to distract him. Always only waiting until he’s ready before asking if he could tell him about what he’d just recalled.

Sadly, Hide isn’t always successful in his attempts to aid in dragging Haise out from the new wave of nightmares that haunt him – mainly because they can’t simply be dismissed as a figment of the latter’s imagination. On some occasions, even Hide is only barely able to convince Haise that it’s okay and that it’s safe now and that his fingers and toes are still there. That there’s nothing in his ear nor is there anything piercing through the back of his head. That there’s no one else in the room except for them and that the voices won’t be able to do anything to him as long as Hide’s there. That he’s there and he’ll help him fight away all the bad things if he needs him to.

Then again, Hide doesn’t really prove his abilities in carrying out the last part well by being too overwhelmed by exhaustion to notice Haise’s nightly struggles not once, but twice. Some best friend he is, sheesh.

Despite Hide and Haise’s combined efforts, it doesn’t take long before the Quinx start suspecting that something’s going on with their mentor. With the frequent reoccurrence of Haise’s finger-cracking habit and the way his composure just falters out of the blue at times, it’s not difficult to make a guess. Hide honestly expected Haise to be at least a little more wary towards the CCG and everyone affiliated with the organization with the things he’s recalling about them, but he apparently trusts his squad more than Hide gives him credit for - even Urie, whom Hide can’t help but doubt a little because of his calculative nature. Haise made up his mind after giving the matter some thought, and found one fine day to gather everyone round to tell them the truth.

Nevertheless, Haise’s warning of the chances of him beginning to change from here on out does little to affect the Quinx’s outlook towards him because hey – Sasaki’s still Sasaki, right? The only difference is that he’s remembering things now. So what if he might get a teeny bit violent at times or something? Everyone has their limits and the need to let loose every once in a while. They’ll be fine. They’re Quinx; they’ll be able to take care of themselves if anything happens.

Forget Haise – Hide himself was tempted to kiss every one of the kids when they told Haise what they told him. Having so much support from the people he treasures and cares so much for must’ve helped lessen his burden more than what Hide alone is able to do. And as time passes, it becomes evident that it does help. After pouring everything out to the Quinx and hearing what they had to say about it, Haise seems to start regaining some of his self-confidence. He’s eventually able to accept his memories a little more calmly, and apart from the wakeful nights, he’s pretty okay most of the time. He’s even gradually willing to open up more to Hide when things become too bad – which, is the development that matters the most; at least to the blond himself.

Things seems to be slowly getting better, and Hide supposes it’s his own fault for never learning from his past mistakes and once again letting his guard down. On approximately two weeks just after the start of the new year, Hide’s called to attend a meeting. He finds it weird at first because why are they only calling for him out of the entire squad? And they’re in the middle of an investigation?? He goes for the thing in the end anyway, having no other choice, and it’s only after he slips into the conference room by himself and sees the other attendees that reality decides to hit him in the face. He’s been so caught up with so many things lately that he honestly didn’t expect he’ll be facing another huge predicament so soon.

The other people present around the table are part of the intelligence team in charge of a certain case. Hide hasn’t even taken his seat when dread starts weighing down on his shoulders. Judging from the grim faces that greet him everywhere he looks, he doesn’t need to guess what the discussion will mainly be centering around.

They’re about to begin planning for the next step to the extermination of the Clowns, and Hide’s going to play a bigger part in it than he thought he would.

Chapter Text

Hide rests his hands on the surface of the desk and laces his fingers together as he waits for the meeting to begin.

It could’ve looked like an attempt to seem professional from another’s point of view, but really, Hide’s just trying to keep himself from fidgeting in his seat. He stares at the default wallpaper of the laptop before him, willing his brain to start working again. How far have the rest of the guys managed to get without him? How much did he miss out, to be called to attend this meeting out of the blue?

The big guys eventually make their appearances; entering the conference room five to ten minutes later than the set time and positively looking very casual about it. The few prominent CCG figures present include Special Class Marude Itsuki, Special Class Ui Koori, Special Class Houji Kousuke and of course, Special Class Arima Kishou and Director Washuu himself - which isn’t much of a surprise considering how huge the entire operation is expected to be. At least the S2 squad isn’t involved in this; Hide has no idea how he’d be able to survive another event of having to work with the insufferable Washuu Matsuri. Plus, that guy has absolutely zero qualms about sacrificing lives for the greater victory - Hide knows that from experience. No one has mentioned it yet, but the death count to the extermination of the Clowns is obviously expected to be high. The CCG doesn’t need to lose any more investigators than they’re presumably going to lose.

Hide leans back against his chair and focuses at the slides on the screen in front of him as he listens on to the briefing on the compilation of data they’ve gathered so far by the leader of their investigation team;  the ghouls they’ve managed to identify as part of the Clowns, their estimated numbers, their average rating. She also goes over what they’ve obtained about their expected gathering; the location, the time, the advantages and disadvantages the place brings to the CCG - anything that’s relevant to help them get a good grasp of the situation.

It hadn’t felt quite real to Hide when he’s still working on the case as a side investigation, but now that he’s here in the middle of this discussion, the weight of it all gradually begins to sink in. These aren’t just simple numbers and ratings and observations. They’re seriously dealing with a group of dangerous ghouls whose abilities are on par with Aogiri’s executives and who most ghoul investigators would prefer to never have the chance to face if they can help it. The smallest error on their part could jeopardize the entire operation. CCG’s forces could be wiped out if they’re not careful. People could end up dying for nothing.

They’ve not even progressed to the actual planning, yet Hide feels the pressure messing with his breathing already. He chews his lip and fiddles with his thumbs, working to swallow his anxiety as the team leader concludes her report before taking her seat again, letting a heavy, suffocating silence fill the absence of her voice. Fortunately for him, Director Washuu is quick to bring the discussion to the next phase after around a minute of thoughtful silence, and Hide gets to focus on something other than the invisible burden pressing down his chest.

Yoshitoki starts out by briefly congratulating and thanking the intelligence team for successfully producing such quality results (he doesn’t mention how long it took them, though). He then goes straight to the drafting of their plan right after, projecting a visual of the Clown’s gathering venue on the screen behind him to aid his explanation. Hide’s own brain gears start turning as he ponders over the various ideas for improvements offered by the meeting attendees towards the Director’s initially proposed plan. It’s great that they’re adding extra layers to the foundation Yoshitoki has lain down, but Hide can’t stop the nagging feeling that everyone seems to be forgetting something important; a factor that could possibly be the key to the success of the mission.

Hide raises his hand. “Permission to speak, sir.”

Yoshitoki doesn’t even bat an eye. “Go on, Rank 1 Nagachika.”

“We’re forgetting how unpredictable the Clowns can be.”

Hide swears he could sense the way the atmosphere shifts at his statement. Either not many people liked being reminded of an obvious fact by a lowly Rank 1 investigator, or he’s right.

“And your point is?” The Director doesn’t look particularly affected, unlike a few others present. Hide isn’t very sure if he should blurt out whatever he’s about to blurt out, but for the sake of the operation, he figures he has nothing to lose.

“I think that we’re tackling this at the wrong angle,” he says, daring himself to stand up so he could be heard more clearly. Even though Hide has never actually minded being the center of attention, there’s just something unnerving about voicing his thoughts in front of a group of people who have so much more experience compared to him. There’s a slightest sense of inferiority he can’t help feeling. “There’s a risk of making our movements all the easier to be read if all we do is make intricate plans.”

“So you’re suggesting we fight spontaneity with spontaneity,” Special Class Ui says, crossing his arms. He doesn’t look impressed, but at least he doesn’t seem particularly uninterested with what Hide’s trying to say, either. Letting that realization help a bit of his confidence return, Hide nods.

“I’m not saying that we should just charge in there without the slightest preparation,” he declares before anyone has the chance to object, “but yes, I do think that we’re being a little too rigid for our own good - considering the type of ghouls we’ll be facing-”

Hide nearly jumps when Special Class Marude suddenly slams his hand on the desk; it must’ve been one hell of a revelation he just had, to produce such a huge reaction.

“Or, it could be a trap!” The older man bursts out, face turning slightly red with agitation. Ah, Hide understands the feeling. Embarrassing as it is, the possibility hasn’t really occurred to him until then, either.  There’s just something too fishy about a group of ghouls who never liked working together coming together, even if it is for some bigger purpose. It’s worth their benefit of doubt. This whole thing about the Clowns’ gathering; it could very well be just another trap. The reason? They know full well that the CCG wouldn’t dare to leave them be at this rate. It’ll be a chance to reduce the Doves’ numbers significantly.

As for why they’re doing it now of all times – Hide figures it’s probably because they simply felt like it. He wouldn’t put that level of randomness past this particular group of ghouls.

At any rate, things don’t seem too bright for them already. The gathering is expected to be held in a little less than a month, and time is running short. They would have to make up their minds quickly, and the Director apparently eventually comes to the same judgment as Hide that having too large of a group would only make the situation more complicated. He silences the breakout of murmurs with a quick word, announcing that he’ll personally give this matter a little more thought before calling another conference. He then excuses everyone except for the few investigators Hide remembers to have had taken part in the previous annihilation of the Clowns, and Hide’s just about to take his own leave when he hears Yoshitoki call him.

“Nagachika-kun.”

And Hide tenses up, somehow managing to put on a relatively calm look (or at least he hopes he did) before turning around to face the group of superiors that remained. “Sir?”

He feels a chill down his spine when Yoshitoki offers him a slight smile, his eyes void of the friendly twinkle that usually comes with it.

“Would you care to stay behind and join us, Nagachika-kun?”

xXx

Discovering the fact that the reason behind the stabbing pain at the back of his eyes had been the act of the person he’d seen as a father-figure wasn’t pretty.

Haise honestly doesn’t know what he should feel. Resentment? Wariness? Then again, Arima-san had only acted based on Hide’s request, so technically, he isn’t entirely to blame. He was only following orders. He hadn’t hurt Haise completely by his own will. Otherwise he would’ve killed him while he had the chance, regardless of orders. If Arima-san really sees him as an enemy, he would’ve had easily erased him long ago. If he really sees him as an enemy, he wouldn’t have been such a great superior to Haise for the past couple of years.

Haise doesn’t even know why he’s defending Arima in his head.

But still. Stabbing him through both his eyes was a little overboard; even if it’s to ensure that Haise would lose his memories from severe brain trauma. Thanks to him – and perhaps several other factors, Haise’s being unfair – Haise has been experiencing numerous nightmares basically consisting of things bursting out of the back of his head and his eyes throughout the previous few weeks. And on nights when his dreams weren’t about those, Haise sometimes relives the torture that once turned his hair completely white; the snipping of his fingers and toes, the repeated stabs of the needle into the corner of his eye, the centipede in his ear. The fact that he has yet to grow accustomed to this repeating pattern doesn’t make anything better. Really, it’s a miracle Haise’s still able to retain his sanity up to today. There have already been several instances where he came so close to accidentally breaking Hide’s hand from gripping it too tightly during his desperate attempts to keep himself from drifting away from reality. Hide always assures him that it’s alright, of course, but Haise’s not an idiot. Enhanced regeneration or not, having your bones nearly crushed should still be painful.

Fortunately, the difficult period gradually comes to a pass, and Haise slowly learns to handle the horrible visions without the need to inflict any pain upon both himself and others. Though, he has to admit; there’s something about knowing how he’d actually gone through some form of those nightmares firsthand that still sort of unnerves him. Haise now understands why a number of his remembrances are tinged with madness. Those hellish experiences are bad enough; he must’ve been pushed to the very brink when he started feasting on ghouls and strayed towards the path of a kakuja. Someone once told him before that cannibalism among ghouls, despite being able to boost one’s physical abilities greatly, comes with a high risk of affecting their mental stability. It’s no wonder Haise had almost completely lost it once.

The night Haise voiced his fears of completely losing it again to his squad, Shirazu told him something he honestly hadn’t expected to hear. He told him that he should be proud of himself because he was strong enough to live through all those experiences, that he was still alive and struggling despite having gotten so beat up and battered. Haise’s pretty sure he’d almost went insane because he survived all those hardships and had to shoulder the weight of all those memories, but he guesses Shirazu’s only trying to cheer him up in his own endearing way, so he’d said nothing about it. He understands his sentiment, and Haise guesses that’s all that matters. Even though Haise often thinks he doesn’t deserve such wonderful people like the Quinx who accept him for who he is despite all that he’s done before, he’s grateful.

Haise takes in a deep breath, letting the cold winter air prickle the back of his throat. He focuses on the numbness of his nose to keep his thoughts from wandering as he walks on, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his coat. He couldn’t help but wonder how they’ll react when he steps in there and tells them. Screaming with joy is out of question – though, giving him a good punch square in the face sounds pretty probable.

Haise’s entrance into the café is announced by the soft dingle of the bell above the door. It’s apparently quite a busy day for them; the place is almost full with customers. With her quality of coffee, Haise sees the obvious reason why it’d be. He lingers at the entryway and scans his eyes across the crowd, idly searching for the few familiar faces he knows he’ll see. His heart skips a beat when he catches sight of a lone figure approaching him, his nervousness rapidly rising to its peak.

“Welcome to :RE!”

Haise has thought of Touka being beautiful ever since he met her again as Sasaki Haise, but it’s only after the return of his memories that he realizes just how much she’s grown up. She looks so different from how she used to be, and it isn’t simply because she dyed her hair a lighter shade. There’s just something about the air around her that implies the change, something about the grace in her movements and the way she carries herself.

“Table for one again, Sasaki-san?” Touka asks once she’s walked up to him, her lips curled into her habitual, welcoming smile. Haise feels an unexpected stab in his heart, his throat closing up as he barely manages to return the gesture, his voice coming out small.

“Touka-chan.”

And her reaction is instantaneous. Touka completely freezes up, staring at him wide-eyed. Haise stands absolutely still as he waits for the rest of her response, shoulders tensed and bracing himself for the impact of the hit he’s certain he’ll receive.

It takes around a minute before Touka’s able to overcome her stupor. Then without a word, she reaches out and grabs Haise’s wrist, dragging him all the way to the back of the shop while ignoring the curious stares from the customers around them. Haise works to avoid tripping on his own feet as he tries to match his pace with Touka’s, keeping his gaze trained on the floor. He’s shoved to a stop once they’re away from public eyes, and when he looks up, the first thing he notices is Touka’s murderous glare.

“Explain,” she orders, crossing her arms across her chest. If looks could kill, Haise’s pretty sure he should start preparing his grave right then. As it is, he’s just mostly thankful for the fact that some things still hasn’t changed after all.

And catching himself suppressing a smile, Haise proceeds to do as she says.

Haise receives a good punch right in the face, as expected.

He also has his ribs nearly crushed in a hug as a bonus, but he’s not complaining. He’s halfway trying to put the rest of his situation into coherent sentences after Touka’s sudden interruption when Yomo walks in on the two of them, and Haise earns himself yet another wide-eyed stare. Being the man of few words he is, though, Yomo doesn’t interrupt Haise’s explanation even after his initial surprise has passed, instead choosing to merely listen to the continuation of where he’d just stopped.

“And you still want to stay with the CCG despite all they’ve done to you?” Touka demands incredulously once he’s finished telling them what he wants to tell them. Her voice is tight with restrained anger, but the slight knit on her brow betrays her concern. “Even the blind can see that you’re being used, Kaneki.”

“I know,” Haise agrees evenly, taken aback by his own calmness. Then again, he’s made the decision to stay in the CCG after countless hours of consideration, and he isn’t going to let his resolve waver so easily. “But I’ve thought about it and decided that it’s safer like this – at least for now. If I leave so suddenly, it’ll only make me seem all the more suspicious anyway.”

“Not to mention they’ll never let you go knowing you’re a half-ghoul,” a new voice chimes in, and despite knowing full well who it belongs to, Haise twists to look over his shoulder. Nishiki returns his gaze with a bored look, pushing his glasses up his nose as he makes his way further into the room. “Hell, they’ll probably kill you before you can even whip out your shitty resignation letter and whatnot.”

“Nishiki-senpai,” Haise greets, the corners of his lips lifting into a lopsided smile when all he receives as a reply is a soft grunt. “The CCG would probably see me as a threat the moment I refuse to cooperate with them, so you’re right about the risk there. And even if I do manage to leave, where would I be able to go?” He lets out a halfhearted laugh as he breaks into a slight shrug. “As ironic as it is, I currently don’t have anywhere to belong other than with the CCG.”

“Because you have those brats?” Nishiki asks, seemingly unimpressed with Haise’s reasoning. Could he, of all people, be feeling bitter because of Haise’s choice to stay at their enemies side? Haise feels stupid for even having the thought. Of course he isn’t feeling bitter; it’s just in Nishiki’s character to sound like that.

“Or is it because your precious Hide is there?”

Haise returns his gaze to Touka, trying to decipher the meaning behind her queer expression.

“Are you angry at him?” he asks, almost tentatively. He tries not to cringe when Touka takes a sharp breath, exhaling it in a long, tired sigh.

“I’m angry at the both of you because you’re both stupid beyond reason,” she says, and Haise, unable to find a more appropriate response, only lets out a sheepish laugh. “Really, it’s no wonder you two are so crazy for each other.”

“What - don’t tell me you’ve never noticed it,” Nishiki deadpans when Haise proceeds to stare at Touka as though she’d just grown another head. He presses his palm against his forehead when Haise shortly turns to give him the very same look. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but someone please save these two idiots.”

And feeling his face heating up against his will, Haise wisely decides to avoid further discussion on the topic. He clears his throat, praying for his companions to not stop him from returning to the matter at hand. “A-Anyway, I’ve decided to stay on in the CCG and do what I can from there. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be able to make some sort of a change if we become influential enough.”

“You do know that the CCG is violently anti-ghoul, right?” Nishiki reminds him, shifting his weight to one foot and placing his hands on his hips. He raises one unamused eyebrow when Haise shakes his head.

“A majority of them are, yes. And they have all the reasons to feel so.” Haise shifts his feet, eyes focused on a spot on the floor. “I know we can’t just expect them to stop hating ghouls flat out, but we can still try to convince them that not all ghouls are bad, bit by bit.”

“They won’t be so easily convinced, though – with that coming from you,” Touka tells him frankly. Haise looks up to meet her gaze once more.

“I’m aware of that,” he says, hoping to sound at least the slightest bit as resolute as he feels. “Which is why I have to stay there. I want to try figuring some things out, and for that, I’ll need time.”

Touka looks like she’s about to argue further, but before she’s able to, Yomo detaches himself from the wall and places a hand on her shoulder, effectively stopping her. He’s been so silent the whole time that Haise honestly forgot he was there. Then again, maybe he did disappear for a moment; someone has to take care of the café, after all.

“You’re sure you want to do this,” he addresses Haise, pitching his sentence to a statement and not a question. Haise bunches the sides of his coat in his fists, and nods firmly. Then to his surprise, Yomo breaks into a slight smile. “You’ve grown, Ken.”

“T-Thank you very much, Yomo-san.” Haise can’t explain it, but there’s a sudden lump in his throat. There’s something about Yomo’s quiet tone – something about the way he actually sounds proud of him – that causes a wave of emotion to well up in his chest. Perhaps it’s also due to the fact that the he’s actually approving his choices; despite how far-fetched his ideas sound even to himself.

But he can do it. Haise’s certain he can. Not now, but slowly, eventually. With the help of those around him.

Touka still doesn’t look like she’s willing to let the subject drop just yet, but she must’ve decided that it wasn’t worth the effort. So all she says is a curt, “Just do what you want. I’ve got a shop to run.”

She then storms back outside without as much as a glance behind, leaving Haise to only stare after her while trying not to feel bad. He supposes it could be a little hard to take in, the fact that the person she’d considered a friend and ally wants to stay at the enemy’s side. After all, she’d lost so much to the CCG over the years. Haise could give all the reasons in the world; his decision will probably still sound like nothing but a blatant betrayal to her ears.

“Way to go in pissing a girl off in your first real reunion in years, kid,” Nishiki snorts, sounding a lot more entertained than Haise thought necessary. He gives Haise an huge, painful slap on the back before returning to the dining area himself, generously offering him a backhanded wave as he leaves.

It takes half a minute for Haise to finish processing the older boy’s words, and even when he does he’s only able to let out a sheepish chuckle to himself because he’s always doing that, isn’t he? He’s always upsetting Touka some way or another. Though, now that he thinks of it, he figures it’s his recklessness that usually maddens her. Haise dare says she’s only worried for his wellbeing, since he’s always doing such risky things and putting his life on the line - and the thought makes him happy, despite everything.

“Yomo-san.” Haise turns to address the man in question, dipping his head slightly in apology, “if it’s not too much to ask, could you tell them not to spread the word that I remember? Just in case?”

Sparing no extra words as usual, Yomo nods in understanding. Haise gives him a grateful look before inhaling sharply, squaring his shoulders.

“Well then,” he starts, casting his gaze towards the busy lounge and willing himself not to dread being the focus of dozens of curious gazes yet again. “I guess it’s time for me to go as well.”

xXx

Haise wasn’t expecting anyone to be home when he got there.

The kids had offered to stay behind and work on their investigation a little longer because they’re so close to solving the thing, assuring that’s it’s alright for Haise to end work a little earlier for the day since he’s always the one working the hardest among them. Hide, in the other hand, could still be in the middle of that meeting he was called to attend  (he’s been there since after lunch break and he was still not done when Haise left four hours later). Haise has to admit: the fact that they’re only calling for Hide specifically and the fact that the conference itself is taking such a long time bothers him more than he thinks it should. Something just doesn’t seem right.

He hates how all he’s able to do is fret.  

Haise breathes a sigh, raking his fingers through his hair as he trudges towards the kitchen to get himself a glass of water. As he passes the living room, he catches a glimpse of the figure on the sofa and instantly does a double take, abruptly stopping in his tracks and craning his neck to see who it is. He blinks blankly when he spots the mess of blond hair, his brain temporarily incapable of comprehending the situation.

Hide’s splayed across the three-seater; his tie off, his collar button undone, his sleeves rolled up and his arm rested across his eyes. Haise struggles to process the sight of him for a moment because Hide’s usually up and bustling even after a long day’s work. And even when he’s not all over the place, he’ll be reading the newspaper and taking it easy or simply messing around with his laptop in his room. Or, to the very least, Hide would take a shower as soon as he gets home (because he’s kind of worried about smelling, he told Haise once). This is the first time Haise has actually seen him exhausted to the point of having to take a nap on the sofa without bathing first.

Mindful to make as little noise as he can, Haise threads over to turn on the radiator – he knows how much Hide dislikes the cold - before resuming his way towards the kitchen, still careful to be quiet while he retrieves his mug and fills it under the dispenser. He’s just finished cleaning up after his drink and is returning it to its original place on the rack when he hears rustling behind him, shortly followed by a soft groan. Haise glances over his shoulder to see Hide slowly sitting himself up, yawning enormously without bothering to cover his mouth.

“Hmm? Kaneki?” Hide murmurs drowsily when he notices him. It’s amazing because he couldn’t have moved around much given how little space there is on the sofa, yet his hair is a mess.

“I’m home, Hide,” Haise says, failing to suppress a smile as he dries his hands with a towel. “Sorry, did I wake you?”

“Nah, buddy. It’s fine.” Hide dismisses with a casual wave of his hand. Haise walks over and takes a seat beside him, noticing the slight waver in his tone. He’s just about to ask if there’s something wrong when Hide leans sideways against him, slouching even more than how he’d started. “It’s all fine,” he breathes, sounding so at loss that Haise instantly knows something’s definitely not fine.

“You feel like talking about it?” Haise asks, his tone a whisper. Hide doesn’t answer right away, instead choosing to idly play with his fingers in silence. Haise waits, letting Hide do whatever he wants until he feels he’s ready to answer him.

They remain as they are for the next five minutes or so, wordless the entire time. Maybe Hide really doesn’t want to talk about it, and Haise’s just about to tell him to forget he ever asked when he breaks into a defeated laugh, running his free hand across his face.  

“Honestly,” he begins hoarsely, “I have no idea where to start.”

“Don’t start, then,” Haise says, shifting slightly into a more comfortable position so Hide wouldn’t slip off. “You don’t have to tell me anything now if you can’t.”

Hide hums, but Haise spots the small crease on his brow even from the angle he’s looking at him. Haise can’t help but wonder what exactly could’ve been the matter, to trouble Hide to this degree.

“Hey, Kaneki?” Hide speaks after another short lapse of silence. He moves their hands so that their fingers are now laced together. “Have I ever mentioned how pretty your hands are?”

“Dork.” Haise nudges Hide with his shoulder, reluctantly allowing himself to feel the slightest relief at how Hide’s still able to crack his dumb jokes despite the predicament he seems to be in. He absently rubs his thumb across Hide’s first knuckle, enjoying the texture of smooth skin under his touch. “For the record, you have nice hands too, Hide.”

“Aww, I’m flattered!” Hide exclaims elaborately, finally fixing his posture and speaking to Haise face to face. Hide has always been annoyingly good at putting on masks, and Haise guesses he’s doing that again right now even after all those talk about opening up to each other. Despite the bleakness in his tone earlier, there are currently no visible traces of anxiety on Hide’s features as far as Haise can see. Then again, Haise isn’t exactly in the position to criticize Hide for still being secretive. There are things that are simply too difficult to share, whether they liked it or not.

Hide lifts their intertwined hands to study them properly. “Though I think yours are a little nicer. There are so many calluses on mine!”

“What’s wrong with calluses?” Haise finds himself demanding, then frowns when realization dawns him. “Wait – are we seriously going to argue over who has prettier hands?”

“What else do you want us to argue over, then?” Hide proceeds to ask in all innocence. He laughs when Haise rolls his eyes, though Haise notices how quickly he turns somber again, the thoughtfulness returning to his gaze the moment his mirth fades. Haise thinks he recognizes the way he’s looking at him right then, and the realization does little to put him at ease.

He’s looking at him as though he might lose him again.

“Hide-“ Haise starts to say, but he trails off when Hide takes a sharp breath and stands up, slipping his hand off his in one smooth motion. Whether he cut him off on purpose or not, Haise doesn’t know. All he knows is that Hide’s still not ready to talk to him, and pressuring him to speak will probably only strain things between them. So he doesn’t.

“You’re going to take a bath?” he asks instead, making up his mind to not test his boundaries for now. Hide needs the space and time, and he’ll give him those, just like how Hide has always done the same for him. He works not to let any more of his worry show when Hide flashes him a grin at his question, waggling his eyebrows in his usual ridiculous way.

“Feel like joining me?”

xXx

Hide has a problem.

Scratch that – he has tons of problems. But for now, there’s a single, huge one overshadowing the rest of them, and he has absolutely no clue how to deal with it.

Hide’s going to be promoted to a First Class Investigator, and he’s going to be assigned to the full-time investigation of the Clowns until the entire operation is over. He’ll be part of the command team as well as the backup team, and though he won’t be in the front lines of the battle, the pressure is still insane. He doesn’t know what possessed Washuu Yoshitoki to decide on letting a young, brash and barely experienced guy like him assist in calling the shots. Then again, now that he thinks of it, perhaps it’s exactly those qualities of his that make him the suitable guy for the job in these particular circumstances – Hide doesn’t know. Being part of the command team means Hide will be holding the fate of people’s lives in his hands, and it’s a heavy burden to bear. If people die because of the orders he gave out, Hide’s sure he would never be able to live it down. No, he can’t do it; he can’t give orders knowing a number of his colleagues will unavoidably be sent to their deathbeds. He just can’t.

Also, because of his new assignment and rise in ranking, Hide will have to leave the Quinx squad. And speaking of the squad, Director Washuu is also considering involving them in the extermination, claiming that they’ll need as much manpower as they can gather – and who can provide more of that than a group of half-ghouls? Hide knows Yoshitoki would want to put the Quinx in less danger nonetheless for the sake of the ongoing experiment, but there will be miscalculations – even more so since they’re dealing with the Clowns of all people. Their chances of dying are just as high as anyone else’s, and Hide doesn’t like that at all. He’s not ashamed to admit; he’s certain he’ll completely lose his composure and ability to function the moment something happens to any of them.

Especially if it was Kaneki.

As little as Hide wants to sound like some whiny loser, he did not come this far just to lose his best friend all over again. His life can’t be that terrible, can it? Things can’t always go wrong for him, can they?

The fact that he knows full well of the answers to those questions is depressing.

“I won’t be able to stay in the squad much longer,” Hide takes a breath and says, barely stopping himself from wincing when he feels Haise tense up in his arms the moment he registers his words.

“Why so?” Haise’s voice is carefully leveled when he speaks after a sharp inhale. Hide chews on his lip, struggling to gather the courage to continue because with him saying it all out loud, the actuality of his situation only gets realer and realer, and truthfully, apart from the time he thought he would lose Kaneki for good during the raid all those years ago, Hide has never felt so anxious in his life.

“It’s sudden, but it seems that I’m going to be promoted,” Hide replies, trying for a sheepish laugh and ending up not quite successful. “I’m not sure if you guys have ever figured it out, but I’ve been helping out in another investigation all this while, and because of its sudden progress recently, the higher-ups want me to prioritize on that from now on. I’ll be playing quite a big part in it, apparently, and that’s why the Director’s planning to promote me to First Class.”

“Is this the thing that was bothering you earlier?” Haise twists to turn around so that he’s face to face with him, his eyebrows slightly knitted in concern. Feeling a little embarrassed at the sudden realization on just how childish he seemed to have sounded, Hide averts his gaze and scratches his cheek, nodding. To his relief, though, Haise does nothing to tease him; instead reaching to place his hand behind his neck and slowly massaging off the kinks there. Huh. Hide hadn’t noticed just how stiff his neck and shoulders were until then.

“It’s only a transfer, Hide. It’s not like we’ll never be able to see you again,” Haise reasons, offering him a gentle smile. “Besides, you’re about to be promoted because you worked so hard. Be proud about it. It’s a great thing.”

Hide isn’t sure if it’s just him, but Haise sounded a tad bit halfhearted in the last part. He appreciates his support - though, there’s still one thing Hide hadn’t exactly been clear about, and that’s-

“It’s not, Kaneki,” Hide says with a heavy sigh, raking his fingers through his hair. “It’s not a great thing. I’ll be assisting the command team in a highly dangerous mission you and the kids will most probably be part of. For all I know, I could be the one leading you guys to your deaths or you could all be injured and dying in the battlefield and I won’t be able to do anything about it and-“

“Hide,” Haise cuts him off with a soft call of his name, leaning a little forward to try to catch his gaze. “Hide, try to calm down first. It’ll be okay.”

“I don’t even dare hope that it’ll be,” Hide admits, so despondently that it’s just so unlike him. “The Clowns are too dangerous, Kaneki. I know death is inevitable when it comes to huge operations like this and blaming myself for it is just stupid of me but-“ he exhales, his shoulders slumping with the exhaustion he has yet to completely register past his anxiety, “I’m scared, Kaneki. I’m just so scared.”

Of losing you again, he doesn’t say.

Haise only nods, not at all inclined to respond with anything unnecessary. Hide tries to find comfort in the silence Haise offers; taking a deep breath before letting it out slowly, willing himself to focus on the warmth of Haise’s hands instead of the raging thoughts that are threatening to cause a full-blown breakdown. Calm down. He has to calm down. Panicking and overthinking things won’t do him any good right now. He has to work on one thing at a time.

All the while, Haise remains quiet; only relentlessly kneading his fingers into the back of Hide’s neck until the tension seeps away from the area. Hide gradually allows his gaze to wander across Haise’s features, taking in the familiarity of the sight he’d long memorized; those bright grey eyes with just the slightest tinge of blue in them, the delicate curve of his nose, the tiny, almost unnoticeable freckle at the lower corner of his right eye. And as he stares longer, Hide also begins to notice some things that aren’t there before; particularly faint scars that even Haise’s regeneration hadn’t been able to erase completely. One on his cheek, his temple, near his ear…

Haise stays completely still even when Hide traces his fingertips across his face with a sort of newfound fascination; over his new scars, eyelids, the bridge of his nose, the dip on his upper lip. Memorizing every single new detail while making sure he’ll never forget even the old ones. Eventually, Hide feels Haise slipping his hand from the back of his neck to the side of his jaw, right above the spot where his pulse is particularly prominent.

Their hold each other’s gaze even as they slowly inch closer and closer, Haise’s flitting away uncertainly only when their faces are a mere centimeter apart. Hide feels himself suddenly breaking into a smile he can’t help, then with a sudden, overwhelming burst of affection, he ducks in, and captures Haise’s lips in a kiss.

“Thank you,” he whispers when he pulls back by an inch for a quick breath, grinning a little wider before letting their lips meet in another kiss; one a tad bit more proper and positively a whole lot more awkward than the last one. Their noses seem to insist on getting in the way and both of them can’t seem to find the right angle to tilt their heads in order to stop that and Hide’s giggling silly at one point and he can’t stop.

“Dork,” Haise murmurs once they’ve parted, his voice tinged with mirth as well as something else. Hide moves to lean their foreheads together, still wearing the goofy grin he honestly did not expect he’ll be able to wear so genuinely given the circumstances he’s currently in.

“But you love me for being a dork, don’t you?” he asks, surprised at how husky he sounds. He chuckles when Haise tries very hard to look done with him but fails spectacularly when he too, breaks into a lopsided smile.

“I always have, Hide,” he says, looking at him so earnestly that Hide feels a tight squeeze in his chest. “And I always will.”

“You know, your sap never fails to amaze me,” Hide jokes, though he’s really working to push down the sudden wave of emotions that welled up within him and threatened to bring actual tears to his eyes. He has to count to three before he’s able to find the courage to continue without his voice breaking, and even then he’s just barely successful. “I’ll always love you too, Kaneki. No matter what happens.”

“Mmhmm,” Haise hums, moving to comb Hide’s hair back behind his ear with his fingers, gently smoothing out any knots he encounters. Suddenly, maintaining his smile doesn’t feel as easy anymore, and Hide has to take a sharp breath to stop his composure from completely falling apart. Haise doesn’t speak up even when they eventually slip into a lapse of silence, only shifting to pull Hide closer towards himself before pressing his face against the blonde’s shoulder. Hide, in turn, lets the steady rise and fall of Haise’s ribs under his touch slowly ease his apprehension, tentatively allowing himself to simply relish this moment, this second. Anything can happen in the future, but for now, they’re here, they’re together.

And for now, that should be more than enough.

xXx

The particular fragment of memory came back to him quite suddenly.

Haise remembers the night his life turned upside down to the utmost vividness – the feral fear he felt when Rize revealed her true nature, the excruciating pain of having his side pierced clean through, the temporary deafness in his ears when those steel beams rained down from above – but it’s the first time that this specific detail has ever resurfaced. He’d seen a person standing atop the building where the beams were pushed from, half hidden in the shadows of the night.

And that person had been wearing a mask resembling a clown.

Haise perfectly understands why Hide’s under so much pressure; the Clowns’ strength is something he’d come to recognize even before the Anteiku raid all those years ago. Mentioning their involvement in wrecking his life could only make things more difficult, Haise knows. Hide’s already so stressed out; Haise can’t tell how well would the new information sit with him. Haise himself is certainly feeling conflicted.

Hide’s promotion and transfer was made official two mornings after the first meeting he attended on the Clown extermination, the very same time Haise and the rest of the squad were notified about their involvement in the plan. Hide’s still staying in the chateau because the higher-ups haven’t got the time to even think of relocating him on such short notice, but that’s not the point. The point is that this operation might just be Haise’s chance to pay back the bastard who played a part in ruining his life, and he’s not quite sure about how he should feel towards this sentiment.

While a part of him is honestly itching for revenge, another simply can’t bring himself to summon enough hate to actually carry it out. Perhaps time helped his resentment dissipate. Perhaps it’s because the more Haise thinks about it, the more people there are to blame, and the more Haise  feels that maybe, just maybe, things are not all bad. If he hadn’t been turned into a ghoul, he would’ve remained ignorant all his life. He wouldn’t have realized how much ghouls have to struggle just to keep living while being rejected by the rest of society simply because of the way they were born.

If all those things hadn’t happened, Haise wouldn’t have seen both sides of the coin. If those things hadn’t happened, Haise wouldn’t be who he is now.

But still. If he ever gets the chance to meet that bastard Kanou face to face, he’s pretty sure he’d like to teach him a thing or two about putting organs into people’s body without their consent.

Haise stares at the blank paper on his desk, tapping the cap of his pen against the surface in thought. He’s never liked writing wills. It only makes it seem all the more certain that he’s going to die out there, and that notion isn’t exactly the best morale booster. When he first started out as an investigator, Haise used to write only the little, insignificant things; like to give his collection of books to Arima if he doesn’t make it back or to tell Akira sorry for being such a difficult subordinate. Then as time progressed, Haise gradually found more things to jot down; requests to guarantee the Quinx’s safety, ways to handle his savings, more books to give to Arima. And as even more time progressed and Haise watched his colleagues die in the battlefield one after another, he too, eventually found himself coming to accept that the same might happen to him any time out there.

But now with Hide here and his own memories mostly back, Haise can’t seem to envision a blank future ahead of him. There are so many things he wants to do that he couldn’t before and there are so many things he’s just come to realize and there are so many things he has to make right and no – he can’t die, not now. He can’t let things end so early.

Only then, it all comes back to the usual question: will he be strong enough? To protect both the people he treasures as well as himself? Haise would like to assure Hide that things will be alright and that they’ll be able to survive this somehow, but truthfully, he’s doubtful himself. The chances of him having to use his kagune is high, and even after all the fuss about accepting himself and the like, Haise still isn’t fully confident about not losing control. And if he does lose control, he’ll only end up as a liability to the rest of his comrades, and he doesn’t want that. Everyone has their hands full enough as it is. Haise can’t afford to add to the burden.

Haise looks up when he hears the door open, turning to see Hide trudging in, his expression distraught. Worry starts plaguing  Haise’s thoughts at once, but no words leave his mouth as he watches the blond cross over to the side of the bed closest to him before sinking onto the mattress, placing his elbows on his knees and burying his face onto his hands.

“I’m sorry, Kaneki,” Hide says, sounding so miserable that Haise’s concern immediately transforms into barely controlled panic. “I’m so sorry,” he repeats with a frustrated sigh, bowing his head even lower and pressing his palms against his forehead, tangling his fingers roughly into his hair. Seeing him like this - Haise almost doesn’t dare ask. Something must be terribly wrong, and he’s not sure if he’s ready to know what that something is just yet.

But he voices his question in the end anyway.

“Hide, why are you apologizing?”

He struggles to keep the volume of his own heartbeat at bay as he waits for his companion’s reply. Despite not knowing what exactly is going on, his feeling of dread grows suffocating, and he has to dig his nails into his palms to stop his hands from shaking.

“It’s the extermination.“ When Hide speaks, his voice bleaker than Haise has ever heard it before, and the tone of it causes his breath to catch in his throat. “Director Washuu wants to put you in the front lines, Kaneki.”

Chapter Text

Being reminded of how powerless he really is at the mercy of the CCG’s higher-ups is frustrating as hell.

But Hide can’t do a thing about it, and that only makes his exasperation worse.

The moment Director Washuu mentioned Haise’s name in the list of front line fighters, Hide’s brain shut out everything else. No. No, no, no. He can’t. He can’t do this, he can’t position Haise at the place where the risk is the highest. Haise might be strong, might be an SS-rated half-ghoul – but he’s still Haise and he might lose control and Hide might just have to-

Of course, Hide’s protests fell onto deaf ears, and mentioning anything more than the risk of Haise going berserk with his kagune will only further emphasize how personally he’s taking this. When the Director calmly reminded him that that’s exactly the reason why he, Hide, is there, Hide knew he’d lost. There’s nothing he’s able to do to convince them to reconsider. This isn’t even about Haise’s memories anymore – Hide’s certain nobody else has found out about it yet. They’re simply ready to sacrifice his best friend if that’s what it takes to finally eradicate the Clowns.

Haise took the news way better than Hide ever did, and the only thing good it does is that it justifies Hide’s crushing hopelessness because he’s feeling it for two. Then again, Kaneki has put himself in numerous life-threatening situations before – both as a half-ghoul and an investigator – so he probably has more confidence in his own abilities. Still, Hide has to admit he’d feel more at ease if he were to at least show at little more concern towards his own coming predicament. Hide’s probably thinking too much into it himself, but it now seems as if Haise’s resigned to let whatever happen, happen.

Though it’s not like he has much of a choice, really.

Ah, but maybe he’s just trying to keep calm for squad’s sake, too. The kids should be nervous about this as well; even they are aware of the level of danger this operation poses. If both their superiors start freaking out because of it, they’ll no doubt be affected also, and being overly shaken by the risks they have to face will only muddle their thoughts with fear and endanger them even more in the battlefield.

Which is why Hide can’t keep on going like this.

He eases out of his reverie, focusing back to the discussion happening around him. He lets his gaze settle on the faces of his teammates gathered around him one by one, taking in their individual expressions. Shirazu’s shifting uncomfortably in his seat, clearly not spared from the anxiety Hide’s sure that’s haunting everyone involved in the extermination. Mutsuki’s looks as pale as he did when he was informed about his role as decoy during the Auction, and Saiko seems positively nauseous. Only Urie doesn’t look particularly affected, and that too, bothers Hide because he knows just how overconfident and reckless the kid can get when it comes to racking up achievements. Of all four of the Quinx, Urie’s still the most likely to get himself in inauspicious situations, and in all honesty, Hide would like to avoid as much of those as possible.

“..already told you guys this before,” Haise’s in the middle of saying; his elbows rested on his knees, his hands clasped loosely together, “but if you happen to face an opponent you know you can’t defeat, retreat and regroup. Remember that you’re not fighting alone. Work together with the other squads when you have to.”

“And if things get really bad,” Hide finds himself adding when Haise stops for a breath, “don’t follow impossible orders and get yourselves killed. Think of your own lives first. It’s better to be called a coward than to be called a hero and not be there to live the name.” He pauses, smiling a halfhearted smile. “Don’t forget that Kaneki and I won’t be there to back you guys up this time. I’ll try my best to do what I can and keep all of you alive from command, but..” He trails off, unable to find a way to voice the rest of it.

“Hide won’t be able to watch over us constantly,” Haise takes over for him before the silence could grow too suffocating. “That’s why – Shirazu-kun?”

The  younger boy perks up at the mention of his name. “Yeah?”

“It’ll be up to you to make decisions when the time comes.” Haise holds his gaze. “I’m counting on you, Squad Leader.”

“I..” For a moment, Shirazu looks completely lost, his uncertainty showing across his features. Then his expression gradually hardens with resolve, and he nods firmly. “I’ll try my best.”

“Maman,” Saiko speaks up before Haise’s able to continue, not at all bothered to conceal her dismay. “Are you really going to be fighting at the front lines?”

“I am,” Haise answers, still sounding miles calmer than how Hide feels. “But I’ll be alright. I’ll be fighting alongside other strong investigators who have even more experience than me, and honestly,” he shrugs slightly, “I can only hope I won’t drag them down.”

He tries for an awkward laugh, but sadly, no one joins him. Even Hide can’t seem to summon any positivity at the moment, no matter how hard he tries. He knows he should do something – crack a lame joke, laugh, assure them they’ll live through this because they’re strong as hell, anything – just to lighten up the mood like he always does. Just to show that he’s handling this well enough.

But he can’t.

“Yeah, well, anyway,” Haise clears his throat, clapping his hands once in conclusion, “I guess that’s all for tonight. You guys should get some sleep while you still can. Believe me, we’ll be having a stressful week ahead.”

He doesn’t budge from his seat even after wishing everyone good night. Hide notices the way his upbeat facade gradually fades into a troubled look the moment the kids are out of sight, and slowly, he stands up and settles down next to him. Not saying a word, not touching him. And they stay like that for what felt like an hour until Haise finally breaks into a sigh, followed by an empty laugh.

“What should I do, Hide,” he breathes, reaching to tug at the ends of his hair on his nape. “I’m starting to feel nervous.”

“Frankly, I’d be even more worried if you’re not,” Hide admits with a mirthless chuckle of his own. “It’s okay to be scared, Kaneki. It’s only normal.”

“I know,” Haise sighs again, keeping his gaze trained on the floor, “I know, but..”

“You don’t want to be scared because you feel that you shouldn’t be,” Hide finishes for him, shrugging when Haise shoots him an inquisitive look. “I understand – I feel that way too. I don’t want to be scared because it makes nothing better yet I can’t help it and gosh it’s just so annoying.“

“It really is, isn’t it?” Haise agrees, letting out a small laugh before looking away once more and falling silent for a moment. When he speaks again, his voice is soft, serious. “Look, Hide, I just want you to know that even if something happens to any of us and there’s nothing you could’ve done, you don’t have to-“

“Blame myself? I probably still will,” Hide says, carefully pretending not to see the weak glare he promptly receives. “Though I guess the only way to prevent that is to make sure none of that happens, huh?”

Hide,” Haise says, firmer this time. And Hide finally meets his eyes. “Remember what you told me last time? That there are just some things beyond our control and that they just happen sometimes?”

“Still.” Hide exhales, moving to trace the back of his fingers across the outline of Haise’s face very gently. “I just don’t want what happened in the past to repeat itself. I don’t want to feel that helpless ever again, Kaneki. To only be able to sit there and watch while you risk your life fighting – just once is more than enough.”

“You won’t be doing us any favors if you blindly rush out into the warzone the moment we’re in danger, either,” Haise reasons, guiding Hide’s hand so his palm is pressed snug against his cheek. He pauses a split second to relish the warmth against his skin, then he continues; “It’s the same for me, Hide. If you die, I-“ his voice wavers, breaking with every subsequent word he says, “-I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“Hey, you’re forgetting about my body’s upgraded durability,” Hide tells him with a small chuckle, working to breathe past the sudden, painful sting in his chest. “I won’t leave you alone, Kaneki. I swear I won’t.” With effort, he tries for a smile. “Promise me you’ll do the same?”

“With all my power,” Haise replies, and impossibly, Hide feels his smile widening.

“That’s great to hear,” he says, slipping his hand from Haise’s grasp before moving to stand up. That’s right. They’ll live through this somehow. This isn’t the first life-or-death situation they’ve been thrown into. They can’t be separated now, not after everything. Hide refuses to accept that fate, and he’s sure Haise feels the same. They’ll all make it out of this. “Now let’s go catch some sleep ourselves. It’ll be another long meeting tomorrow.”

But even as Hide settles down for the night lying as close to his companion as he would allow, he can’t shake the feeling that something will go terribly wrong.

xXx

Truth to be told, Haise’s worries are based on absolutely selfish reasons.

Even more than being hurt, even more than dying, Haise’s afraid of being left alone. If, by some twisted chance that he loses both Hide and the kids in the upcoming battle – no, he can’t even imagine how it’ll feel like. He doesn’t want to. Envisioning something like that will only make things more difficult than they already are. Haise can’t afford to think of the worst case scenarios now of all times.

He catches himself just before he cracks his finger as he tries to focus on whatever’s being discussed in the conference he’s attending. There are a total of thirteen S~ rated ghouls confirmed to be among the Clowns, the others adding up to almost thirty members. The number is relatively small compared to huge organizations like Aogiri, but Haise doesn’t feel a bit assured. These data are only what the CCG has managed to discover. There might be more of them, all strong – the remaining seventeen of the thirty are mostly A-bordering-S rates. Even with the number of fighters the CCG is planning to send, Haise knows they can’t let their guard down.

CCG’s forces are to be divided into eight factions; with four in charge of fighting aboveground while the other four deal with all matters under. They need underground factions because there will be ghouls there as well, either awaiting them for an ambush or attempting to escape from the battle above. In fact, there’s a chance that there might even be more of them lurking underground compared to the openness above, since they do possess enhanced senses that will grant them an advantage down there. Director Washuu is clearly determined to make sure not even one Clown makes out of this war alive.

Haise scans through the list of names passed to him, noting how half the members of the underground factions are mainly former or current members of Squad Zero who have more experience working in this particular environment. There’s Special Class Ui’s squad, First Class Hirako’s,  First Class Fura’s and Associate Special Class Kijima’s. Arima himself, meanwhile, is assigned to fight at the heart of the battle aboveground.

Then as he reads further on, Haise’s focus lands on his own name, and his breath promptly catches in his throat.

There will be a change of plans to his placement, it seems – he’ll be part of the underground factions, under Special Class Ui’s charge.

Haise has got unpleasant experiences underground, to say the least, and being stationed there puts him in more unease than he wants to admit. At least the Quinx will be fighting aboveground where there’s more space to move around; they’ll be joining Special Class Houji’s division, it seems. That’s good. They’ll have a skilled leader to guide them if anything goes wrong. Haise also discovers that Akira will be working with Juuzou – which, is quite an unusual collaboration. The two of them had worked together on an investigation only once before when Haise was still under the Mado Squad, and contrary to his earlier expectations, that turned out better than expected. Akira even came to acknowledge Juuzou’s capabilities as a leader despite openly doubting him at the beginning. Their personalities might clash like anything, but Haise’s sure they’ll be able to get along fine when it comes to battling ghouls; just like how they did before.

Haise’s gaze flickers to the top of the page, going over a particular cluster of names. Director Washuu will be leading the entire operation, assisted by Special Class Marude – the usual combo. Haise searches for Hide’s name, and he shortly sees that the blond will be in charge of supervising the aboveground factions. Haise figures it must be extremely exasperating for Hide; he won’t be able to keep an eye on him even if he wants to. Though knowing him, he’d still insist on finding a way to do so anyway because he’s just that stubborn. Haise guesses he can’t judge him for that - he’d probably be the same if he was also put in a situation similar to his.

The basics of the plan are simple: cover every possible direction and make sure none of their targets are able to get away. The rest of it runs on compromise; meaning there will be lots of spontaneous decisions and adjustments they would have to make individually. They won’t be able to afford spacing out for even a second, and that’s one of the reasons why the operation’s so dangerous. Depending on how long it could be drawn out, their mental strain would only add to their general fatigue, and this will invite errors and mistakes.

And errors will cost lives.

Haise curls his fingers into a fist on his lap, forcing himself to take a deep breath and calm down. He’s just about sick and tired of his sudden waves of anxiety towards their coming predicament. He’ll be fine. He can fight, and so can the others. They’re all strong and smart enough to survive, he’s sure. This isn’t the first major operation they’ll be taking part in, and it definitely won’t be the last. They’ll live. They won’t die.

It takes a moment for Haise to actually realize that the reason why he’s suddenly so nervous is also partly due to the atmosphere around him. Hide and him aren’t the only ones doubting their chances of survival, Haise realizes that just from one look at his colleagues around him. Everyone else has people and things they can’t leave behind too, but their circumstances aren’t exactly giving them much of a choice. It’s kill or be killed – nothing complicated. The weak fall and the strong survive. It’s always been like that. Which, is perhaps why there’s a sort of determination mixed in with the cloud of tension in the air as well.

And this, for some reason Haise can’t explain, gives him the slightest boost of courage. He’s not alone – he can’t keep forgetting that. They’re not fighting alone.

With that in mind, Haise manages to sit through the rest of the meeting biting back the minimal number of urges to randomly start screaming. He still fails to stop the sigh from escaping his lips when Director Washuu finally concluded the thing for the day, though; moving to align his documents before standing up. As he pushes his chair back under the table, Haise steals a glance towards the desks at the front, his gaze finding the familiar mop of blond hair. He’s just wondering if he should wait for Hide when he remembers that he’s no longer in their squad and that his schedule is mostly – if not entirely – different from theirs now. Even after all this while, it still feels kind of strange. Haise’s just so used to doing things together with him, and now that he can’t, his brain needs time to readjust. Right. He doesn’t have to wait for him now.

So he leaves, trying to ignore the unnecessary awkwardness as he makes his way back to his office to inform the Quinx about the latest details on their operation. His phone vibrates in his pocket just as he’s about to open the door to the room, and he stops, shifting to hold his papers in one arm as he reaches for the device with his free hand. He raises his eyebrows when he sees that it’s a message from Hide; he wasn’t expecting him to be able to use his phone at all with all the things he’s caught up with. Still, Haise could tell he was probably in a hurry – his message was short and lacked the usual emojis that came with them. Apparently Hide’s going to be home a little late, but he’s expecting to make it back before dinner so he’s asking for them to wait for him.

Haise replies with a simple “okay, take care” before slipping his phone back into his pocket, a small smile tugging at his lips when he’s suddenly reminded of the times in the past when Hide used to whine about his annoyingly brief replies to his texts. Despite having changed in so many ways, that one part of Hide remained the same, now that Haise thinks of it. Hide’s still has that childish, playful side to him at times, and Haise’s eternally grateful for that. He knows just how difficult it is to preserve a sense of humor in their line of work where every day, every case is a matter of life and death, a question to their morality.

Only then, the pressure of carrying the burden of so many lives in his hands might just be too much for even Hide to bear. Hide might just have to finally let that part of him go after this operation.

And even though he knows full well that it can’t be helped, Haise catches himself desperately hoping for that not to happen.

xXx

Hide sighs to himself as he walks on, absently listening to the shuffle of his shoes against the pavement.

The main reason why he's going home late isn't because he has work to do, contrary to what Haise believes and to what he wants him to believe. Hide needs the time alone to sort out his jumbled thoughts, and being in the chateau with Haise there as the living reminder of the worst that might happen just doesn't exactly help. So he ends up wandering around all over the place without any set destination, seeking solace from the mundane sounds around him to help take his mind off the things that refuse to cease haunting him, even if it’s only by a little.

Haise will be fighting underground. It's too similar. Everything's too similar to that time. Hide doesn’t like it at all. He knows he's being paranoid, but he can't help fearing history repeating itself. He doesn’t want to go through that again, doesn't want to find his best friend hurt and half-crazed in the dark of the sewers ever again. There are only so many heartbreaks he can bear, after all. He's already expecting so many to die because of him. He knows he won't be able to handle anything more than that.

Hide comes to an abrupt stop in his tracks, realization on where he'd taken himself dawning him. He's been there with Haise and the squad enough times to recognize the place even a street away. Just a little further, and Hide would be finding himself in front of :RE.

He spends a moment to reconsider. Haise has told him about his visit to the café the other day, and he’s apparently told the guys there about his identity and intentions. Even though Hide personally thought it was quite a risky move, he hadn’t said a thing about it. They are Haise’s friends, and if he trusts them enough to let them know, then Hide should have no complaints. At any rate, Hide’s not quite sure if he should go there at the moment; Touka’s already seen through his act once before. What if she takes one look at his face and knows something’s going on again? He can’t just stroll in there and casually tell her ‘oh, by the way, I know Kaneki just came back and all but we’re about to wage war against a bunch of strong ghouls and he’ll be one of the main fighters underground’ and not expect her to worry about it. Worse comes to worse, she might even want to arrange something just in case Kaneki really does end up in a tight situation. Hide doesn’t want that. Kaneki would never forgive him if he’s the reason outsiders are dragged into a battle they shouldn’t be involved in.

On the other hand, Hide's already come this far and some great coffee doesn't sound like a bad idea at all. He could use some caffeine to help him wade his way out of his dump and hey – it’s not like he’s a stranger to keeping secrets now. He’ll just reply her questions with his usual nonsense if it comes to that. Yeah. That’s settled.

Hide bites back a groan when he enters the place and discovers that business was slow that day. That’s one bit of bad luck already. Hide shifts his weight from foot to foot as he waits to be seated, working not to look too discomforted by the lack of people around him. He’s staring at the floor when a pair of feet enters his field of vision, wearing sneakers too large to be a girl’s. Ah. Hide’s gaze flickers up, and he’s greeted by a very unimpressed Nishiki.

“Huh. You’re alone today, Shittychika?” he asks, and Hide can’t help but snort at his painful lack of hospitality.

“How do you guys even get customers with that mouth of yours, Nishio-senpai?” he inquires, chuckling when he earns himself an irritated tsk in response before he’s led to an empty table. His crooked grin remains plastered on his face even when Nishiki practically glares at him while waiting for him to make his order. He still remembers how indifferently the older boy had reacted the first time they saw each other in the place, and truth to be told, Hide was a little miffed at how little he bothered. Then again, he guesses he can’t exactly blame him. It’s not Nishiki’s nature to openly show concern towards most people most of the time anyway.

“So? What do you want?” the older boy demands after waiting for around five seconds. Hide proceeds to shoot him a look.

“I’m complaining to your boss if you keep that up, senpai,” he says with the straightest face he can manage.

“Yeah, and if you keep that up I’m kicking your sorry butt out of this place,” Nishiki returns flatly, reaching to adjust his glasses. “Now make up your mind before I’m forced to waste all my daily patience on you alone, Christ.”

“Ehh, I guess I’ll just have one of your special black coffee, then.” Hide returns Nishiki’s glower with a bright grin. He only lets it fade after the latter turns around and leaves, leaning forward to rest his arms on the table before balancing his chin on one hand. He watches the people around him with idle interest, his ears focusing randomly on hushed conversations, the clinking of glass, the faint hum of the radiators. He feels a sigh leaving his lips as his eyelids flutter close. It’s a little surprising; the amount of comfort he’s able to find from these little things alone.

“Um, Nagachika-san?”

Hide opens his eyes, once again pulling on a smile the moment his gaze meets his companion’s. “Oh, hey, Touka-chan.”

“It’s rare to see you here by yourself,” Touka points out, placing a cup of steaming beverage before him with practiced fluidity. “Are the others busy with something?”

“Yeahh, well,” Hide sits back and reaches to scratch the back of his head, “I kinda got reassigned to another squad the other day, and our schedules don’t exactly overlap most of the time now so..”

“I see.” Touka raises her eyebrows slightly. “No wonder you seem extra tired today.”

Hide blanches. “Is it that obvious?”

“You’re usually barely able to sit still,” Touka says with a one-shouldered shrug. Hide’s only able to let out a sheepish laugh in response.

“I.. just have a bunch of stuff to think about these days,” he admits, then inwardly kicking himself because what the heck is he doing? He’s not supposed to be indicating any of his troubles to her! He can’t let her even remotely know about the dangers he and Haise would be put through in less than a week. He can’t let her worry.

“Does it have something to do with Kaneki again?” This time, it’s Touka’s turn to deadpan. Hide stares at her with what he’s pretty sure is a weird look even in his standards.

“Do you seriously assume that all my problems are mainly related to him?” he demands with more irony in his voice than he’s happy to admit. Touka returns his gaze with a face possibly even straighter than the one he’d pulled off just now.

“Well, aren’t they?” she asks, cocking her head slightly to the side. And on second thought, Hide supposes she has a point. His concerns do mainly revolve around Kaneki some way or another most of the time. He can't deny that even now.

"Guilty.” Hide lets out another sheepish chuckle. “Ah, but there’s more to it this time – though I’m sure you have better things to do than to listen to my laments, don’t you, Touka-chan?”

He holds the girl’s gaze as he waits for her response, silently willing and willing her not to ask further because he doesn’t want to say anything more than this. He can’t. There are risks he simply can’t and shouldn’t take.

It’s only when Touka heaves a huge, labored sigh that he realizes he’s been holding his breath.

“The two of you are so similar in some ways that it’s almost scary,” she mutters, so softly that it’s just enough for Hide to barely catch her words properly. She then adds in a louder voice; “Whatever it is, just do me a favor and remember one thing before you do anything stupid, will you?”

Hide raises his eyebrows, belatedly noticing the seriousness in her tone. “Sure.”

“Kaneki’s strong,” Touka tells him, her faith in him fully evident in her words. “He won’t let himself be killed so easily.”

And with that, she walks away to serve another customer, leaving Hide to stare after her dumbfounded with his mouth slightly agape. When he finally overcomes his stupor, Hide could only puff out a breath, the corner of his lips lifting into a mirthless smile as  he combs his fingers through his hair.

“I know,” he whispers to no one in particular, resisting the sudden urge to laugh bubbling up his chest, “Gosh, I know.”

He just wonders why doesn’t it make things any better.

xXx

Before they realized it, the day of the operation is upon them.

Nothing felt different the night before. They had dinner just like they always did and sat around occupied with their own devices after that. Then they eventually went to bed one by one when it was time, exchanging nothing more than the usual ‘good night’s and ‘sweet dream’s. And even when Haise was alone with Hide in his room later on, there were no more promises, no more vows to survive and come back. No words exchanged between them in general. Just their arms wrapped around each other, their scents and breaths mingling, their hearts beating as one.

Even though Haise knows Hide couldn’t have slept much as well, they stayed like that for the rest of the night.

Hide has to leave a little earlier to finalize some things with the command team that morning, so Haise isn’t too surprised when he feels him unwinding his arms around him even before his alarm clock goes off.  Haise doesn’t bother pretending to be asleep; stopping him with a soft call of his name before he can even try easing away from his embrace. He moves to cup his cheeks with both hands and holds his gaze when he looks up at him, not saying another word. Just staring at him and memorizing the features he can’t guarantee he’ll be able to see again the next morning; no matter how firmly he tries to assure himself otherwise. His soft brown eyes, slightly thick eyebrows. The slight upturn of his nose, his dry, usually humorous lips. The shape of his jaw and the tiny, faded scar on his left temple.

Without really thinking about it, Haise draws Hide closer, and brushing back his bangs, he presses a kiss on his forehead.

“Good morning, Hide,” he whispers, promptly earning himself a crooked smile from his companion.

“Mornin’, buddy,” Hide replies, and for the briefest moment, Haise’s able to convince himself that nothing’s wrong, that this is just another morning and they’re just about to get up to start another day. That it’s all fine and that he wouldn’t probably be fighting for his life in a few hours. “It’s the big day, huh?”’

“Mmhmm.” Haise sighs, then breaking into a smile of his own as he marvels at how Hide actually manages to make it sound as though they’re just about to go on a job interview or something. He releases his face and squirms towards him, snuggling against the comforting warmth Hide’s body always readily offers. Hide chuckles lightly the moment he realizes what he’s doing, snaking one arm under him and the other around his waist before bringing them even closer, entangling their legs into a mess.

“Just two more minutes, yeah?” he says, his voice laced with a sudden tinge of sobriety. Haise nods in silence, letting his head rest comfortably against the crook of Hide’s neck. Hide’s heartbeat is erratic, and there’s a slight tremor in his arms. Haise holds him just a tad bit tighter, subconsciously hoping to stop his shaking that way. It’s okay, they’re okay, the words are left unsaid. They’re going to be okay.

They have to be okay.

Hide’s sharp inhale is all that’s needed for Haise know that it’s time for him to go. Fighting back his reluctance, he unwinds his arms around his companion and shifts away, watching as he slowly pushes himself upright into a sitting position. Haise can’t help wondering once again, how much would Hide change after this. Would he be an entirely different person? Or would he simply lose a part of him that makes up who he is now? Haise doesn’t want to know. Hell, it shouldn’t even matter. Hide has accepted all the changes he had gone through, and there’s no reason why Haise can’t do the same for him. It doesn’t matter what state he’ll return in later as long as he does – Hide will still be Hide, will still be his most precious person.

“Kaneki?”

At the sound of Hide’s voice, Haise snaps out of his reverie. When he focuses his gaze on his companion once more, the first thing Haise notices is the tiny smile that doesn’t quite reach Hide’s eyes, the slight knit of his eyebrows betraying his anxiety.

“Hey, I know you’ve just woken up but,” Hide pauses, scratching his cheek sheepishly, “you think you can make me some breakfast before I go?”

Hide really wants to enter the numb stage already.

He can’t keep low-key freaking out like this. It messes with his thoughts and his performance will end up suffering. He can’t afford to screw up, not this time. People are already going to die; he has to do everything he can to make sure to keep that number as low as possible. He can’t let his own jumpy nerves be the downfall of possibly hundreds of people.

Hide takes a deep breath, holds it, and exhales it bit by bit, trying to force his heart back to its normal pace. He then looks up, letting his gaze dart from the panel of controls before him to the screens displaying the battlefield from a number of angles. The streets are empty – almost eerily so. The evacuation notice has been issued two days ago, and fortunately, they had the complete cooperation of every citizen in the area. It’s the first time Hide has ever seen a part of the city so deserted in the middle of the day, and unsettling as it should be, it’s also a relief. At least they’ll have one less thing to worry about like this.  

“Nagachika.”

Hide turns on his chair at the sound of the voice, his gaze meeting that of his superior’s. Special Class Marude stalks into the vehicle, mindful towards the low ceiling above (though it’s not like his head will reach it even if he stands straight – shhh). His expression is sour as always, and if Hide didn’t know that better he’d think he’s about to get an earful about something. Then again, no one said he wouldn’t, either, so..

“Anything I can help you with, Marude-san?” he greets, putting as much enthusiasm as he can into his voice. He supposes he shouldn’t let it seem so obvious that he’s anxious about the entire thing. Marude stares back at him, the look on his face unchanging.

You’re the one who would be needing help,” he tells him after a short pause, moving to take a seat on the empty chair next to him. He doesn’t show any significant reaction even when Hide makes no  attempt to deny him. “Look, Nagachika, I’m sure you’re doubting yourself about all this-“

“What gave it away?” Hide cuts in with a shaky, embarrassed laugh, rubbing the back of his neck. The older man stops just long enough to shoot him a look before going on.

“-but Yoshitoki-san trusts your abilities enough to assign you with a task as important as this,” he continues, “and for what it’s worth, so do I.”

“Aww, I didn’t think you’d be such a nice guy, Marude-san,” Hide jokes, though he’s honestly touched by how much Marude seems to care for him; to the extent of personally coming over to give him some pep talk. He’d always suspected him having a soft spot for him, but he’s never been straightforward about it so it was always difficult to tell.

“My point is,” Marude stresses every word, his tone taking a weary turn as he runs his hand across his face, “just don’t be stupid.”

“You know what, I take back the thing I said about you being a nice guy.” Hide pouts, feeling thoroughly amused by the eye-roll he promptly receives. Even so, he’s quick to turn serious again, leaning back against his chair before offering his companion a grateful smile. “Thanks, Marude-san.”

He tries to decipher the look Marude gives him following that, but the latter stands up to leave before he’s able to, giving him a firm pat on the shoulder as he moves away. It’s only after he’s disappeared outside that Hide thinks he gets it; what that expression and gesture meant. He rakes his fingers through his hair, a weary sigh escaping his lips. He must really have looked freaked out of his wits, huh? He inhales sharply and slaps his palms against his cheeks a couple of times, steeling himself. That can’t do. He has to do his part right.

And as he slips on his headset, he can only hope that his confidence and focus will last.

xXx

It takes a while for Haise to get used to the stench of the sewers.

It’s tricky, trying not to let those memories seize his thoughts and throw his mind into disarray. It had been somewhere down here, far away in another location. The wound on his side that refused to heal, the imaginary voices that taunted his mind; voices that threatened to consume him and take over and turn him into a mindless, starving monster. Hide appearing out of the gloom, greeting him as if nothing’s changed, smiling as if nothing’s wrong when every single thing was. The taste of Hide’s flesh in his mouth, his promise, his battle with Arima.  All of those had happened down here in the 24th Ward.

Haise grips the hilt of his Quinque a little tighter, directing his attention back to the situation at hand. He’s careful to keep his footsteps light as he moves through the network of tunnels with his team, wary of alerting enemies within their proximity of their presence. He strains to listen for any unusual sounds past the constant trickle of water and the thundering beat of his heart, his skin practically tingling with his heightened senses towards the first signs of danger. Where would they come from? Who would they try to take down first?

Are the kids alright? Has the battle started aboveground?

Have the deaths started?

Haise reels his thoughts back into order just in time to register the sudden spike of unease in the air. The squad has stopped moving at Special Class Ui’s command, every member glancing around guardedly. Haise squints into the darkness surrounding them, the meager lighting provided by the flashlights fastened to his earpiece doing little to illuminate anything further than a couple of feet away. That’s another thing about being assigned to the underground factions: they’ll be fighting in minimum visibility. Not even Haise has any enhanced senses that would help him in a fight. They’ll all have to rely solely on experience and instincts against a group of ghouls, and the odds don’t seem to be in their favor already.

Haise shifts his weight, feeling a single droplet of sweat roll down the side of his face. The tension is so thick in the air that he catches himself holding his breath in anticipation. Two minutes pass, five. Nothing happens, and that doesn’t make him feel a bit better. Haise’s reluctant to let his guard down even when Ui deems the situation safe to proceed, and he’s sure it’s the same for everyone else. There was definitely something that triggered their caution – or, more accurately, someone. Someone lurking in the dark, probably enjoying toying with them this very moment.

Haise bites back the urge to yell at them for being an ass and for them to just come out and fight already because they’re not making things any easier for them like this. He casts his gaze around one last time before letting himself relax by a fraction of a degree and resuming his way deeper into the sewers along with his squad despite being still painfully aware of the disquietedness hanging around them like a fog. He braces himself for something to jump out at them any second now-

Haise has taken about ten steps when he feels a rush of wind towards his face, his body reacting faster than his brain ever could. He raises his Quinque just as something slams into him, carrying so much force and momentum that Haise nearly loses his footing as he’s shoved backwards. Noises immediately fill the air; the thud of bodies against concrete, the splash of water, alarmed exclamations, hurried reports to command center about engaging in battle, hisses of pain and strained assurances that they’re alright. Haise’s light shines upon a blood-red appendage stretching out from the darkness beyond, but before his mind could process anything other than the thoughts of it’s begun, it’s begun, it’s begun, the weight pressing against him retracts as abruptly as it’d come.

And what followed are echoes of laughter around them.

Chapter Text

Haise lost all sense of time ever since the moment he descended underground.

He has no idea how long he’d been defending himself against his unseen enemy. Ui had eventually entrusted the task of handling this ghoul to him and another squad member while the rest of them move on, and as difficult as it will be for him, Haise can’t deny that that’s for the best. Their location is too enclosed to have an entire squad fighting against a single ghoul. However, the limited visibility still proves to be a huge disadvantage for them; Haise’s partner – another First Class Investigator he’d never met until that day – blundered some time into the fight because of it, and he was swiftly killed.

Haise’s now fighting alone, feeling so isolated that it’s almost overwhelming. The darkness seems to press down on him; stealing his breath, making his heart race. Making this fight a whole lot frightening than it already is.

And then there’s the laughter. The reverberating, near hysterical laughter. How many of them were actually there? How many more of them are there? Haise can’t even decide on an estimation.

Haise feels the ground under his feet shake, and he jumps back just in time to avoid being skewered by the appendage that erupts from where he stood. He’s a split-second away from landing when he feels someone grabbing a fistful of his shirt from behind, and before he even has the chance to register his surprise, he’s hauled into the murky water in a single rough yank.

The water should only be barely reaching up to his knees when he’s standing, but for a full thirty seconds, Haise’s completely seized by panic, the chill immediately seeping right through his clothes and into his very core. His heartbeat goes into a frenzy, and breathing is almost impossible even though his face isn’t submerged. He desperately tries to force himself to calm down as he casts his gaze around, successfully finding the slightest assurance in the fact that his light is still working and that he can still see to an extent. His brief moment of comfort, however, is short lived because he soon spots a figure hurling itself towards him from the corner of his eye. Too fast. There’s no time for him to look for his Quinque, and even if there is, something in Haise’s mind tells him that his position is too disadvantageous for him to defend himself properly.

He didn’t think twice. He focused, and with a familiar prick on his skin, his kagune bursts out of his lower back and intersects his opponent three feet before they clashed. With a grunt, he shoves them back against the wall hard enough to crack the concrete, keeping them pinned down. He finds his Yukimura on the ground by his feet and picks it up before struggling to stand, his soaked clothes weighing him down. He has to get out of the water, fast. Not only is it difficult to keep his balance, the freezing temperature is affecting his movements. Haise’s fingers and toes are already feeling numb and he can barely control his shivering. This is bad. He has to finish this fight fast and recover. There could be more of them ahead an-

Distracted, Haise nearly doesn’t notice the kagune aiming straight for his face until it’s too late. He moves to block with his Quinque, but he’d still reacted a second late. He’s pushed off balance one more, and his opponent takes advantage of his wavered focus to break away from his hold. Haise feels a hand gripping the side of his head firmly, and with the momentum of the ghoul’s leap towards him, he’s shoved into the water once more – only this time, he’s not allowed to resurface.

Haise trashes, the deprivation of oxygen making his head and chest hurt, his ears ringing uncontrollably. One part of his brain that wasn’t paralyzed with panic manages to command his kagune to move, aiming to pierce his enemy through by coming at them from two sides at once. He knows he’d missed when he feels the weight on his back disappear, but he couldn’t care less about that right then. He straightens, taking a large gasp of air just before he has to block yet another attack, though this time, he’d anticipated it. He has his first clear look of his opponent when he retaliates a second after, and the disturbing clown mask with a grin too wide that stares back at him nearly causes him to falter. He manages to strike the ghoul’s leg nonetheless, but rather than a cry of pain, all he receives is an amused whistle.

“Ehh, you’re not that bad after all,” the ghoul comments, deliberately avoiding Haise’s slashes by barely an inch as if completely unaffected by his injury. Haise hadn’t been sure at the start, but his enemy is apparently a guy, judging from his voice. “I thought you’d be stronger, to be kept as the CCG’s precious pet.”

He bounds back with a laugh when Haise kicks out, putting distance between them once more. Haise shifts his feet, feeling that he should be able to do better than this too – if it isn’t for the fact that he’s barely able to control his shivering. The ghoul’s merely toying with him –he knows that – and if he wants to take him down, now’s his chance. He has to finish this fight before it drags on and drains his energy. He takes a sharp breath, and pours more focus into his subsequent attacks, each strike carrying the very intention to kill.

As he fights, Haise visualizes the previous battles he’d been through at the back of his mind. How had he handled bikakus in the past? They generally have no exceptional strengths or weaknesses, but he knows they have weak spots like everyone else. It’s near impossible for him to look for a personal vulnerability with his limited time and ability to see, so he tries looking for a trend in those he’d faced before. Maybe they all share a flaw, with the way they tend to handle their kagune and-

Haise’s train of thought abruptly cuts off when his brain registers an opening and his instincts once again took over. He forces himself to wait until the very last minute before sidestepping from the appendage coming right at him, twisting to drive his Quinque right through the flesh and into the ground. He takes advantage of his opponent’s brief moment of  bafflement to distract him with a flick of water at his eyes before making a leap towards him, aiming for his vital spots so he could end the fight there and then.

Haise’s assault doesn’t reach, being interrupted halfway by the appendage erupting from the ground and piercing him through right above his kakuhou. He gasps, blood welling up in his mouth and the pain almost enough to make him black out. Or maybe he already is starting to black out; it’s difficult to tell in this meagre lighting. Every breath he tries to breathe seems to get shallower and shallower, and the limb impaled through him is preventing his regeneration from activating.

“I never said I only had one tail, you know,” the ghoul chuckles cheerfully, moving towards Haise in a relaxed saunter. This is bad, this is bad. Haise has to free himself somehow, or else he’ll die, he’ll die, he’ll die. “So. You’re Arima Kishou’s favourite little boy.” Haise fails to suppress a cry of pain when the ghoul brings him closer for a better look, the movement aggravating his wound. “For someone so many are making so much of a fuss about, you sure don’t look very special, Sasaki Hai – ah, or should I say,” he pauses for effect, and Haise could almost see him smirking under that mask, “Kaneki Ken-san?

They know. Haise doesn’t know how they would know, but they know who he used to be. Though truthfully, he has to admit the revelation doesn’t unsettle him as much as he would expect. Maybe his ability of think is muddled by pain and blood loss, Haise isn’t quite sure. His opponent seems to be disappointed with his lack of reaction as well, placing his hand on his hips and tilting his head while humming in question.

“Oh? You’re not going to start losing it?” Unfortunately, he’s only dispirited for a moment. “That’s too bad then. I thought I’d actually have the honours to break you a second time, but I guess that’s not happening.” He shrugs. He’s then hit by an idea, making a loud sound of revelation and snapping his fingers. “Though, I do wonder – how would the famous Reaper react to the death of his treasured kid?”

The question sounds so out of it that Haise actually finds the strength to laugh, successfully earning himself another confused stare from the ghoul. Oddly, he feels his mind clearing slightly in the process, and he starts forcing himself to think. That’s it. That’s his opening.

“Who knows? Maybe he’ll actually cry for a week,” Haise manages to choke out, twisting his lips into a smile of irony as he works to summon the strength he needs. At his answer, the Clown snorts without humour.

“Haha, very fu-“

He doesn’t have the chance to finish his sentence; Haise uses the single kagune he’s managed to reform to strike his head in a single blow before he has the chance to. The ghoul’s kagune dissipates while his beheaded corpse falls to the ground, and Haise drops to his hands and knees, desperately gasping for air. He clenches his fists, trying to use the sting on his palms to distract him from the pain besides stopping himself from losing consciousness. He’s trembling – from the cold? The fear of dying? His wound isn’t healing; why isn’t it healing? He has to recover and stand up and prepare for the next fight. He can’t just stay here and writhe around pathetically! He has to fight! He bites back a scream of frustration as he wills and wills his regeneration to begin.

Actually, Haise knows why his wound isn’t closing. The food CCG feeds him can sustain him, but it’s always just barely enough. Haise’s last proper feed was more than a month ago; he has to eat. He has to eat or else he won’t survive.

But what’s there to devour? His fallen comrade? The lifeless body before him?

Anything, a voice in his head screams, anything is fine.

“No,” Haise tells himself firmly, aloud. “I can’t, I can’t.”

You have to, you have to.

There must be another way.

Just one bite. One bite is enough.

Being healed with one bite alone sounds too good to be true, but Haise knows better. Cannibalism can never end well, as it didn’t for him. Haise doesn’t want to experience that insanity ever again; the actual feeling of having his thoughts so jumbled that nothing made sense and completely losing his mind. But does he have a choice in this if he wants to survive? His wound might not close up in time if he doesn’t eat, and he might die, he might die, he might die.

He can’t die.

Haise jolts violently when he hears a loud thud sound behind him, his nose picking up the sweet, sweet scent of human blood. To his horror, he feels his mouth watering against his will, his stomach twisting tighter and tighter. No, he has to control it – don’t succumb, don’t succumb, don’t succumb. He bites his lip and inhales sharply, struggling to get on his feet. It’s okay, it’s okay, he doesn’t need to eat. He’s already healing. He can recover in time-

He turns around, and the first thing he sees is a figure lunging straight towards him.

xXx

To be honest, Hide had naively expected the battle to begin progressively, with the level of chaos building up bit by bit.

Sadly, reality isn’t that indulging. Reports of investigators engaging and falling in battle flow in almost faster than his brain could process, voices rapidly filling the command vehicle as Hide’s colleagues begin taking charge of their assigned factions. It’s certain now – the Clowns have been anticipating their attack. Hide thought his anxiety would peak, but apparently the numbness has finally set in. He shuts out his emotions, focusing solely on handling the task at hand. He has to be rational. This isn’t completely unpredicted, they knew full well they’ll be facing powerful ghouls who were known to be ridiculously whimsical in their schemes. They can still deal with this.

Hide’s focus flickers from one monitor to another, his brain going on full autopilot mode. Team 6, advance to route E; Team 11, assist Team 10 in battle; Team 2, split up and circle around the approaching target. He wills himself not to cringe every time he sees investigators fall on screen from a brutal attack or hears a voice fizzle out in the middle of a frantic report, wary of losing focus. It can’t be helped, he tells himself firmly over and over. It can’t be helped, it can’t be helped, it can’t be helped.

He feels like throwing up.

Hide’s assigned area is just slightly away from the front lines, so he’s not exactly informed about whatever’s going there. Special Class Houji’s squad isn’t stationed under his watch as well, so he has no idea how the Quinx are holding up. Did they encounter one of the stronger Clowns, by any chance? Are they fighting already? Are they hurt? Or did they manage to avoid dragging battles with their improved teamwork? Hide doesn’t want to hope for too much. It’s fine as long as they’re alive.  As long as they’re still alive and struggling, it’s enough.

There’s an persistent tug in his gut that makes itself gradually apparent by the second. There’s something wrong. Hide makes a mental review of their situation thus far. Something’s odd. He isn’t sure if it’s just him, but despite everything that’s going on, the Clowns don’t seem to be.. aggressive enough? Sure, they’re not slowing down their pace in breaking through ranks and wrecking havoc among the investigators, but they also don’t seem to be actively killing every Dove they come across? Are they aiming for something else? What exactly are their intentions?

Hide nibbles on the tip of his thumb. It’s frustrating, not being able to even scarcely predict how this operation will play out. He takes a breath before leaning forward in his seat, requesting for a brief update on their situation as a whole from the guys in the main command centre. An unfamiliar voice answers him soon after, curtly informing him about how things are going in the other areas. Juuzou and Akira’s squad are currently in a standstill in their fight with one S rate and one SS rate ghoul. Arima’s squad has just finished eliminating a group of four, no surprise there. The Quinx are doing well holding their ground with Houji’s squad against an SS rate. Everything seems to be going fine for the stronger aboveground factions, but Hide wants to know more. How are those underground holding up? Have they encountered anyone?

Is Kaneki alright?

Hide stops breathing for a second when he’s told that the underground factions are all engaged in battle, the number of enemies still undetermined. But for now, it’s estimated that every team is facing at least two ghouls. At least. Hide frowns. It means there could be more of them ganging up on those in the sewers. Hide doesn’t like it. The ratio doesn’t seem to add up. It’s almost as if-

Hide’s train of thought doesn’t finish. There’s a sudden commotion in the background on the other side of the line, and although he fails to catch most of the words exchanged, he hears a single name.

Rank 1 Sasaki Haise.

“What happened to Rank 1 Sasaki?” The words are out his mouth faster than he could think, just short of a scream. The guy stops midsentence, hesitating for a moment before replying.

“I’m afraid it’s not-“

“Answer me!” Hide’s self control dissipates in a flash, replaced by a feeling of dread so intense that he can’t resume breathing. “What happened to Haise!?”

He’s barely able to hear past the thundering of his heart. No. No, no, no, no, no, don’t let this be what he thinks is happening, don’t let this be what he fears most. He could’ve misunderstood, right? That person could’ve just been giving a status report, informing the guys about Haise’s movements underground. It doesn’t necessarily mean that something terrible and irreversible has happened to him, right? Right!?

“Your orders, Director!” Someone yells urgently in the background, and somehow, Hide knows with utmost certainty. He wasn’t mistaken. Deep down in the sewers, somewhere below them right now, Haise is in danger.

Hide has to do something. He has to. He can’t possibly sit still when he knows something’s going on and he might lose his most precious person all over again! But would he be jeopardizing the entire operation if he forcefully asks to be sent to where Haise is now? As utterly selfish as he wants so badly to be, he reconsiders. Haise will never forgive him if many others are hurt in return for his own safety, Hide knows that. Then again, Hide’s required to prepare to be called out any moment to join the backup team and provide assistance where it’s needed, so he can’t exactly say his placement is completely rigid, either.  

Hide forces himself to take a deep breath. First things first, he needs to keep his calm. Freaking out won’t do him or Haise any good right now. He needs to handle this with the correct state of mind, or else he would only make things worse.  

“Link me to the Director.” The calmness in his own voice when he speaks surprises even himself. “Now,” he adds firmly when the person on the other side once again hesitates. In the few seconds he has to wait, he glances across the monitors before him one last time, making sure he has the opening to leave his post. Ironically, thing’s seem to have settled down for him at the moment; with battles still being fought and no clear progress being made yet.

Hide doesn’t realize he’s holding his breath until he hears his name being called in his earpiece.

“So you heard, Nagachika.”

It’s a statement, not a question. Hide figures he should be at least a little wary towards how Yoshitoki’s able to see through his intentions before he can even say a word, but he can’t exactly care at the moment.

“I’m ready to go any moment, sir,” Hide says, working to keep his voice as leveled as possible. He purses his lips and taps his fingers restlessly against the edge of the control panel, the pause before he receives a reply almost too long to bear.

“Not yet.”

Those words are like a punch in the face. “But sir-“

“We still need you in command, Nagachika,” Yoshitoki tells him, as a blatant fact rather than a compliment. “I’m sure you’ve noticed it too; how the Clowns seem to be moving strangely.”

“Then that’s all the more reason for us to go-“ Hide starts to argue, but he’s cut off with a firm call of his name from his superior.

“Sasaki-kun will have to hold up on his own a little longer somehow,” Yoshitoki says with the lack of emotion only acquired through many years of experience in his line of work. “Until we have an idea on what exactly the Clowns are planning, you are not allowed to leave your post.”

How the hell do you expect me to focus when my best friend might just die in the meantime!? Hide nearly screams, but miraculously, he manages to hold himself back. Instead, he bites out a strained “I understand” before being disconnected. He forces himself to take another deep breath, exhaling slowly through his mouth. Right. This is where he’s supposed to make the real decisions.

Hide can very well simply bolt out of the vehicle right then – he’d secretly slipped a tracking chip into Haise’s clothes earlier this morning; he knows where he is. But it’s back to the main question: would he be endangering the lives of hundreds of others for the sake of a single person? And if he is, would he be able to go through with it? Would Kaneki forgive him for it? Would he be able to forgive himself for it?

The other question is, why is he needed when he’s possibly the most inexperienced one of the command team and the others can probably figure something out even without him? What does the Director see in him that everyone else seem to lack? Hide has no idea.

But he’s determined to find out in the shortest time possible, whatever it takes.

xXx

Haise’s scared.

He’s been randomly losing touch with his surroundings on and off for the past god-knows how long, and it honestly frightens him. Every time he comes to from his brief black-outs, something’s different. Something’s destroyed, someone’s hurt. Someone’s screaming, someone’s laughing. Him? A Clown? Two Clowns? All three of them? He doesn’t know. He’s using all he has just to fight for control, to stop that waking monster within him from surfacing and overwhelming what’s left of his humanity.

He’s hungry. He’s so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so hungry. The gnawing in his belly is unbearable. There’s a voice in his ear, spouting garbled words that he can’t make any sense of no matter how hard he tries. Ah, wait – what was he doing again? What is he supposed to do again? Fight? Eat? Protect?

Survive. He has to survive, to make out of this mission alive. The pain that sears his shoulder where his opponent slices him jars him back into a slightly clearer state of mind. He counters by slashing downwards in front of him, just barely missing the ghoul before the latter leaps back. His head feels like it’s being split apart, and it’s taking so much effort to keep his kagune under his will. The various levels of aching in a few hundred other parts of his body really aren’t helping in driving him any less crazy. Haise bites down onto his lip, reopening the freshly healed wounds there for the umpteenth time. He sucks at the little bit of blood that wells up from the patch broken skin, using the sharp taste of it keep both his mind and appetite in check.

As effective as it was when he first started, it’s gradually losing effect the more he does it.

Haise figures he must’ve unconsciously faltered at one point  because the next thing he knows, someone’s grabbing the back of his head by his hair, and he’s dunked into the freezing water once more. With all the extremities he’s forced to endure up until that moment, every little bit of rationale Haise had the first time it happened to him disappears in a flash, and with that moment of lost concentration, the beast that Haise’s been desperately holding back bursts its way forth.

Haise’s still somewhat aware of what’s happening when it happens; it’s always like that when he loses control. He starts out conscious of what he’s doing – only then he doesn’t care. He can’t find the urge to care. All he wants is to fight, kill, devour. To do what he wants and eliminate anyone, anything in his way.

And this ghoul is in his way now.

His kagune begin to feel like they’re tearing at his lower back, eating their way through his flesh, but that doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter. What matters is that he erases this obstacle before him and– and–

Everything’s blank after that; Haise has no recollection of what he did from that moment onwards. His body moves on its own, the starving ghoul within him completely taking over. All Haise knows is that he’s fighting; leaping, tearing, shredding. Piercing, stabbing. Killing. Destroying. All the while counting down from a familiar set of numbers under his breath. 993, 986, 979..

972..

930..

853-

“..neki!”

Haise stills for a second, abruptly registering the voice calling his name. Someone’s calling him, someone he knows. His hands grip the sides of his head, his nails digging into his scalp as he struggles to regain control. No, he has to stop. Who’s that calling his name? Who?

“Kaneki!” The voice sounds slightly clearer now. Haise turns towards where he thinks it came from, forcing his vision to focus. He still can’t see anything besides the increasingly irritating beam of light that’s shining at his eyes, making him cringe. He wants to make it stop, to make it go away because it hurts his eyes and it’s making the stabbing pain in his head worse and he wants it gone, he wants it gone, he wants it gone-

He’s moving before his train of thoughts could continue, pouncing right at the source of light and knocking the body it’s attached to to the ground. It doesn’t feel as sturdy and muscular as a ghoul’s body. It’s a human. This is a human.

Food.

“Gosh, I didn’t think you’d be so excited to see me, buddy,” the person under him says after a short hiss of pain, followed by a slightly strained laugh. “Ah, give me a sec – my light’s in your eyes.”

There’s a click, then utter darkness engulfs them. Haise’s heart races. Wait. It’s as though something finally connects in his brain, finally letting him form coherent thoughts once more. He recognizes that voice, and no, no, no, it’s like that time all over again. Everything’s exactly like before – he lost control, he’s starving, he’s pinning him down and he’s about to eat-

“Hi..de.” He hears himself gasp, the tremor returning to his hands and feet in an abrupt, violent wave. He can’t seem to move and he can’t let himself move because god knows what he might do if he does and no he can’t hurt Hide, not again, never again. He’s never doing that again, no matter how hungry he is, no matter how overwhelming the temptation gets.

But if he doesn’t eat, he’ll get eaten. He knows, he knows because he can just barely stop his kagune from going into another frenzy right then. There has to be another way. There has to, there has to.

“It’s just me, yeah,” Hide affirms from below him, his tone impossibly light despite the circumstances he’s in. Even though he can’t make out his features, Haise could hear the smile in his voice, which, is ridiculous because how can he smile in this situation? How can he always find that courage to have so much faith in him to not be afraid? “Listen, Kaneki,” Hide continues before Kaneki’s able to begin processing the turn of events beyond what he already has, “you’ve got to calm down; you’re falling deeper into the Clowns’ trap.”

“I..” Haise swallows drily, his throat raw with the desperately suppressed urge to sob. “It hurts, Hide. It hurts.”

No, this isn’t what he should be saying. This isn’t what he should be saying at all because he knows Hide and telling him this would only-

“It sure does, doesn’t it?” Haise feels him placing his hand against his cheek, his touch gentle and warm against his skin. Then, as casually as asking for a drink of water, he says, “Eat me, Kaneki.”

“I can’t,” the words are out his lips before he even needs to think them through. Even with his eyes unable to adjust to the dark due to the absolute lack of light, he could almost make out the frown on Hide’s face.

“You know you have to,” he tells him, worry tingeing his voice. “Come on, even just a bite is better than nothing. I’ll heal anyway, so it’ll be fine.”

“I don’t want to hurt you again,” Haise insists, his fingers curling shakily into the front of Hide’s shirt. “Even if you can regenerate faster, I-“

“And I don’t want to lose you again, Kaneki.” Hide’s tone turns to a plea. “Please – it’s the only way. If you go on like this, you might cross the point of no return, and..” he hesitates. “And they might really issue the order to kill you this time.”

“Then kill me!” Haise bursts out, and something in him shatters when he hears Hide catch his breath. The lapse of silence that follows feels almost too long, too heavy. No, he shouldn’t have said that. He shouldn’t, he shouldn’t, he shouldn’t.

“Don’t ever say that again.” Hide’s hurt is evident in every syllable when he speaks. “You have to live, Kaneki,” he adds in a stern whisper, his voice breaking slightly when he says his name. “We still need to fight.”

“There has to be another way,” Haise insists, though he knows full well that there isn’t, not now. Not when his focus is just barely enough to keep him from succumbing to the welcoming embrace of insanity once more.

“There’s no time,” Hide states, then in a gentler manner; “You’re already at your limit, aren’t you?”

Haise wants to deny it. Every coherent fiber of his being is screaming at him to deny it. But he doesn’t, he can’t. Because it’s true. He wants them to end; the pain all over, the twisting knot in his stomach. He just wants it all to end.

“It’s okay, Kaneki,” Hide continues as he draws him closer towards himself, sounding so reassuring that despite it all, Haise dares to believe him. “We’ll be okay.”

And when his lips touch against skin, Haise opens his mouth, and bites down.

xXx

Hide would like to say that it didn’t hurt, at least not as much as the first time.

Unfortunately, it did hurt – every bit as much as the first time.

It all adds up; the dread in his heart towards what he might have to do, the sharp bolts of pain that shoot through the entire length of his arm right up to his neck whenever Haise’s teeth tears into his flesh. Hide endures it all, trying to focus on something else to distract himself. The rhythm of his breathing, the way Haise’s hands quake as he holds his arm to his mouth. Ah, Hide thinks as he carefully sits himself up, that kindness of his remains even in this state, huh? It must be hell for him to have to resort to this once more. Hide feels terrible for making him do this, but he’s convinced that it’s the quickest, most foolproof way to help him. There simply isn’t enough time.

Haise stops soon after Hide reaches to comb his fingers through his hair at the back of his head, threading them through the damp strands. Despite only being able to get a glimpse of him before he’s jumped at and pinned to the ground, Hide knows Haise’s all battered up from his previous battles. It must’ve been absolutely wild; to actually have pushed him to lose control. Then again, with the harsh injuries inflicted upon him and the fact that he hadn’t been eating properly for so long now, it probably wouldn’t have taken much.

If Hide could kick himself, he would. As hard as he can. Just because Haise has been relatively fine up until then doesn’t mean it’ll stay like that the rest of the time. Hide should’ve done something about it earlier before it all ended up like this. Surely, Director Washuu would’ve understood, would’ve allowed an exception this once to let Haise eat just a little more to keep him going throughout the entire operation. Surely, he would’ve seen the dangers of a ghoul investigator running rampage during a mission as important as this.

Unless it’s his intention to let Haise do that in the first place.

“I’m sorry, Hide.” Hide snaps out of his thoughts at the sound of Haise’s murmured apology, his heart promptly aching at the way his voice quavered. “I’m so sorry.”

“You don’t have to be,” Hide tells him tenderly, feeling for his hand and holding on when he finds it. His fingers are cold – unnaturally so. “I’m going to turn on my light now, so you might want to look away for a moment.”   

He senses Haise shifting, and assuming that he has turned away, Hide squeezes his own eyes shut, and reaches to trigger his torch. He parts his eyelids to mere slits, but after being used to the dark, even that’s enough to make his eyes hurt. He points the beam upwards, and waits until he’s adjusted to the lighting again before facing Haise once more, his breath catching in his throat against his will when he sees the look he’s wearing; a look showing so much self-loathing that it’s.. wrong. It’s plain wrong because eating to survive isn’t something he can help and should blame himself for. It never has been, never should be.

“Kaneki?” He leans a little forward to catch Haise’s eyes. “Please look at me.”

He waits. He waits until he complies before breaking into a grin and holding up his arm for him to see, the area where it’s eaten already fully healed. “It looks even better than how it started, huh?”

Haise doesn’t laugh, but Hide notices the slide fade in the furrow across his brow – which, is still a better reaction than nothing. Hide takes a breath, suddenly struggling to maintain his upbeat façade. He doesn’t want to do this; doesn’t want to ask Kaneki to keep fighting even when he’s already like this. He just wants to bring him home, give him a warm shower and tuck him into bed for the day after all he’s been through. But working for the CCG – being in this operation by itself does not allow them such luxury. To live is to fight. As long as they’re still capable of moving and the operation has not ended, they have to fight.

“Have you calmed down?” Hide asks softly, holding Haise’s gaze. Slowly, Haise nods in affirmation, and Hide continues, “Alright. I’m guessing you weren’t exactly paying attention earlier when the instructions were issued and time’s running short for us, so I’ll just tell you the shortest version of it, yeah?”

He inhales, then steeling his own resolution, Hide lowers his voice, and begins explaining about the newest plan he’d aided the Director in coming up with after finally seeing the Clown’s objectives. He wills himself not to falter even as he watches Haise’s expression gradually change to show his unvoiced protest, his scowl making it clear that he’s against the idea. It’s too risky. Too many people might die simply for a compromised goal.

But to stop even more from dying in the future, to possibly reduce the Clowns’ numbers to the point of crippling them enough to land the final blow, it’s their best shot.

Hide has had the very same doubts, and that was the conclusion he’d arrived at. To stop the Clowns from doing any more harm, they have to do what they have to do.

Even if it means throwing their morality away, even if it means having to give up their own lives.

“We’ve got exactly eight minutes to join the nearest squad before the next stage of the mission begins,” Hide sums up with a quick glance at his watch. He shifts to stand, pausing midway when he sees the concern written all over Haise’s face.

“Hide-“ Haise starts, but stops when Hide flashes him a reassuring smile – or at least he hopes that’s what it ends up being.

“Whatever you think I might do, I’m not doing it,” Hide promises, straightening up and holding out his hand to help Haise to his feet. Not if I can help it, he doesn’t add audibly, instead willing his confident front to remain as he digs his pocket for the extra torchlight he brought with him to replace Haise’s broken one. While Haise fastens the gadget to its mount on his earpiece, Hide makes a quick report to command to inform them that they’ll be proceeding to their position shortly. He receives an update about the squad they’ll be joining; they’re to navigate towards the east to rendezvous with First Class Hirako’s squad. It’s quite far off even with the shortcuts Hide remembers they can take, but they can make it if they’re quick. Even if they get intercepted by ghouls on the way, they don’t need to fight.  They can face them later, after they regroup.

“Hide.” Hide turns towards his companion at the call of his name, his fingers posed above his ear to readjust the direction of his light. Haise’s expression is a jumble of feelings; dread, exhaustion, a slightest bit of determination. The one that Hide found stood out most was concern, though. “I don’t know what might happen from this point on but–“ his averts his gaze for a split second before meeting his eyes once more, “- please don’t do anything stupid.”

“I could say the same to you, buddy,” Hide chuckles, but even he hears the tense undertone in his laugh. Whatever. “Now let’s go – we have to hurry.”

xXx

The basis of the plan isn’t too complicated.

Based on the pattern of the Clowns’ movement in the sewers, Marude had managed to make a deduction about their actual objective of gathering and trapping the Doves underground. The difficult part was figuring out how they were going to do it; the routes they’re planning to seal to prevent escape without collapsing the entire underground structure in the process, the routes they themselves are planning to use to escape. Marude had proposed the idea that perhaps the ghouls intend to bring them down with them, but apparently it’s Hide who understood their antics better after all those nights spent trying to analyze them. The Clowns are a group of ghouls who value life – they wouldn’t plot anything that would pointlessly kill their own numbers.

And it’s according to Hide’s judgment towards them that they were able to further narrow down the possibilities. The underground factions are originally assigned to surround a particular area – the Clowns will be taking advantage of that to close them in instead. To do this, they’ll need decoys to draw the CCG’s investigators deeper into the sewers while someone else seals off the necessary tunnels. It’ll ensure that even if the decoys are defeated, the Doves will not be able to make it out, either.

Director Washuu’s counter plan revolves around the idea of falling into the Clowns’ trap, but instead they’ll be using the chance to draw them towards a larger, more open area underground not unlike that of V14. This limits the ghouls’ choices to exactly five exits once the one’s which they predict they’d destroy are taken care of  – all which will have the aboveground teams waiting to engage them on the other side. It’s not a fully effective plan since they’re betting on the chance that the Clowns will not be sealing the tunnels manually and there’s still a possibility that Hide might be wrong about their mentality and they will bring them down with them if it comes to it – but the Director is willing to make the gamble. He’s even willing to destroy the tunnels himself to enclose them all in order to force them to abide to his schemes.

“You guys are crazy.”

Hide can’t tell if Kuramoto’s comment was referring to the plan or the fact that they actually managed to figure out what they’ve figured out. Or maybe he’s referring to how Hide and Haise had literally leaped in to save his butt from being handed to him without as much as a second thought. Maybe it’s all three. Things can get a bit overwhelming with all these stuff going on.

Rude.” Hide can’t help grinning even as he parries the kagune coming at his chest, the one aiming for his head slashed off at the tip by Kuramoto’s Quinque. It’s easier to focus on the appendages, Hide learnt, than to look at those disturbing jester masks that are probably going to give him bad dreams for a while. “Is that how you show your appreciation towards your saviors, Kuramossan?”

“Oh, please,” Kuramoto says as they let their opponents gradually push them back. “Takeomi and I were doing fine even before you guys arrived. Isn’t that right, Bujin?”

What he gets as a response is a quiet “I suppose” somewhere from Hide’s left. And despite being resigned to the fact that he could’ve lost so many friends and acquaintances in this operation, Hide’s glad that these two are still alive and fighting. He does enjoy their companionship every now and then. Plus, you don’t find upbeat investigators like them everywhere these days.  

They continue the rest of the fight without further conversation, careful to keep their intentions subtle as they lead the band of ghouls they’re facing towards the designated location. It’s not too difficult to pretend that they’re sluggish from fatigue and that they’re losing ground – with the exception of Hide himself, everyone else have been practically engaged in constant battle for the almost last hour. Really, Hide’s amazed they can still go on even after all this while.

He steals a glance at Haise through the corner of his eye as he takes another step back, making sure he’s doing alright. He look slightly better now after eating; his movements solid, his gaze steady, his focus unwavering. Hide can’t imagine what could’ve happened to him if he’d outright refused to satiate his hunger. Hide had suspected that provoking Haise to use his kakuja had been part of Clowns’ intentions to let him destroy that path of the sewers, and it was with this hunch that he’s finally allowed to leave his post to look for him.

He flinches involuntarily when he feels the walls around them shake, a loud boom sounding in the distance. All big talk aside, Hide is honestly terrified of having the entire network of underground sewers collapse on top of him and somehow causing the entire city to cave in on itself. It should be unlikely given how human error during the construction of the tunnels could’ve caused any part of the place to fall apart without the need of external interference in the first place, and surely precautions have been taken to ensure the rest of the network remains even if that happens, but Hide still can’t help feeling the fear. Dying buried in a mountain of boulders and debris isn’t exactly the way he wants to go.

Then again, who’s he to decide on that, really.

Hide forces himself not to think about any of that, instead pouring all his concentration into the task at hand. He works to keep the image of the sewer map projected at the back of his mind, trying hard to keep track of their location. Too long. They’re taking too long and there’s still some way to go before they reach where they need to be. They’ll either need to make a run for it, or they should finish their fight right here and now. The latter seems to be a better choice, now that Hide thinks it over. They won’t want to risk being vastly outnumbered later – not if they want to preserve the chances of them walking out of this mission alive.

“Guys, you think-“ Hide hasn’t even completed his question when someone suddenly charges forward, taking on his opponent with so much surprise that he actually manages to kill them even before Hide’s stupor could pass. Takeomi doesn’t glance over his shoulder for confirmation as he continues fighting and wow Hide didn’t think he’d be so easy to read. It seems to quickly dawn the others what he’s about to say as well, and soon all four of them are fighting in earnest, keen to finish what they have to do there in order to go on with the mission.

The following minutes are a blur, with them bolting towards their destination the moment the last ghoul fell and stopped moving. Thank goodness Haise has an excellent memory too because Hide almost made a few wrong turns in the heat of the excitement. That would’ve been really bad if it happened. Getting lost underground isn’t exactly the best thing to do, especially under these circumstances.

If their rendezvous point had been any smaller, the first word coming into Hide’s mind upon reaching the place would be ‘pandemonium’. Under the dim lights, battles raged everywhere; fallen bodies kicked and stepped over on the ground as though they were nothing but obstacles – which, they technically are in this case. However, since the place was about three times the size of a school gym, everyone’s spread out, and the only difficult thing to decipher is who’s winning.

For a second, Hide’s seized by a sudden, overwhelming sense of panic. What if their plan’s failing? What if the Clowns have plotted something else entirely and they’ve danced perfectly into their trap? What if he’d really wasted precious lives for a plan that’s futile the moment it began?

There’s no going back, not after coming this far. He knows, he knows. But- but-

He feels someone’s fingers brush across his arm, and truly, Hide’s surprised he didn’t jolt away. When he turns, he sees Haise staring straight ahead at the chaos in front of them, every bit of fear and doubt Hide feels visible in his eyes. Ah, that’s right. Hide takes a breath, forcing his heartbeat to return to a steadier pace. How could he keep forgetting? He’s not in this battle alone. There are still other options, other ways they can come up with in order to fight back. They’ll manage, somehow.

Somehow.

“Hey, Kaneki?” Hide breathes, waiting until Haise faces him before continuing, “I don’t care what happens when all this is over, but when it is,” he breaks into a grin that came with surprising ease, “let’s go straight home, yeah?“

Kaneki’s smile that responds to his is probably the brightest thing in the entire underground. “Of course.”  

And without another word, they step out to join the war.

xXx

It’s unnerving, how quickly Haise’s mind cleared the moment he’d allowed himself to relieve his hunger.

He can’t tell if that’s a good or bad thing, though. While coming to his senses did allow him to stop before he could do any more harm to Hide, it also made the reality of harming Hide much harsher. He’d done it again, the one thing he’s always, always feared he’d do. There are no excuses for his actions even now; not his desperation, not his hunger-driven craze. He’s hurt the person precious to him, and that’s that.

But Hide hadn’t even given him the time to mull over what he’d done – and perhaps that’s indeed for the best. They’re fighting a battle for their lives; they can’t afford to be distracted. Especially not when it’s a war of mind-games between the Clowns and the CCG. The first ones to break will be the losers.

Haise was probably the very first loser, then.

As he fights, Haise catches himself inherently holding his breath from time to time. He tries hard to ignore how at any moment, an explosive could be set off and the ceiling above them would collapse and everyone in the place, human or ghoul, would be buried alive and left to die. He can’t let his own doubt show because these are the Clowns they’re facing, after all. They would be able to manipulate even the slightest hesitation to their own advantage, and Haise can’t risk that.

So he pushes every unnecessary thought and emotion to the very back of his mind, letting his body move by itself to fight, to keep surviving for the next second, minute.

He grits his teeth as he blocks against his opponent’s strike with his Quinque, straining to push against the weight of the blow. The first few Clowns he’d fought earlier had been strong, but somehow he could tell that those they’re facing here are almost on an entirely different level. There aren’t many of them when Haise surveyed the battlefield earlier before joining in – around ten Clowns, maybe even less – yet the investigators seem to be struggling. The underground factions consists of roughly sixty men including those sent to provide backup, most of them ranked First Class and above except for a few exceptions like Haise himself. Haise tries not to lose courage from the fact that barely half of them currently remain. Even though they’re all drained and injured, none of them looked disheartened. They’re still hanging on, believing in their slimmest chance of success.

The Clowns still seem to be merely toying with them, Haise can’t help but notice. But he also reminds himself that it’s a contest of mental strength. It’s alright. All he has to do is fight. Even if he goes down, at least he’d fall after giving everything he has. Director Washuu would still have something up his sleeve. Even if the CCG ends up at the losing side underground, he’s still make sure that every death, every bit of effort everyone has put into the extermination would not go to waste.

And maybe everyone’s driven by the same thoughts, pushing themselves to the limit and holding their ground even when every breath they took hurt and every motion they made took twice as much effort as they should have. Even when they’re bruised, broken and bleeding. Even when they’re taunted with promises of quick painless deaths, with assurances that they’ve been ordered into a suicide mission and are abandoned now that nothing is going according to plan.

“God, would you just shut up!” Haise eventually hears someone yell even above the chaos, and he recognizes the voice despite its faintness. Seems like some ghoul has managed to piss Special Class Ui off, and the effect of his annoyed exclamation ripples across the warzone. Somehow reenergized by his complaint, investigators begin intensifying their efforts with renewed spirit. Haise figures it’s because he’d just summed up how everyone’s feeling in one sentence, and actually telling a ghoul to shut up in this situation is certainly something unusual and strangely motivating.

Haise doesn’t think he should be feeling so amused by something so insignificant, but he is. In fact, it must’ve shown on his face because Hide points it out to him when they end up back to back a little later.

“Well someone’s having fun,” he comments breathlessly, a smile playing across his own lips. Haise doesn’t get the chance to answer him before he goes on the offensive on impulse again, his body moving the moment he spots the opening to make a retaliation.

The sudden spike in enthusiasm from the CCG’s side must’ve thrown the Clowns off balance – or at least it seem to have with the one Haise’s handling with two other investigators. The ghoul’s attacks turn reckless as she struggles to defend against their increased aggression, letting Haise easily read her moves and compose a counterattack with his colleagues. He lunges forward the moment a path is cleared for him, disabling the last appendage with his Quinque and plunging his kagune right through her heart in one swift blow.

Haise takes a step back and stumbles, but someone catches his arm and holds him up before he could fall butt first onto the ground. He glances up wearily to see Hide by his side, subconsciously marveling at how he’s able to maintain that grin despite the tremor of fatigue in his grip.

“It’s working,” Hide mutters as he helps Haise regain his footing, his voice slightly raw with obvious relief. Haise only understands what he means when he registers his surroundings once more. As if someone had flipped a switch of some sort, the chaos around them has receded almost completely. Apart from those who had been successfully exterminated, there are no Clowns in sight – they’ve all retreated back into the sewers, hopefully in a rush enough to go right for the first exit they see and walk right into whatever’s prepared for them on the other side.

Because if they take their chances and return.. Haise’s not sure if they would be able to put up a fierce clash a second time. Everyone’s utterly drained from what he can see, and they are to stay where they are until they receive the green light to leave the underground. Haise knows he can’t afford to relax yet, but for a second, a minute, he allows himself to catch his breath. The operation has only lasted for about two hours so far, but it feels like they’ve been fighting for days.

But that’s alright. If all goes well, it’ll be over soon.

He really wants it to be over soon.  

Haise tries to gauge the minutes passed since the battle died down around them. How long has it been? Will they be coming back? It could’ve just been him, but Haise guesses he isn’t the only one who feels like they’ve waited long enough to deem the situation safe by the time he’s internally finished counting to a thousand. From all around, he spots investigators lowering their weapons, leaning back against walls, breathing huge sighs, and generally allowing themselves to take a break.

Haise turns when he hears a long exhale, yelping involuntarily when Hide slouches against him, arms immediately circling around him to support them both. Dread immediately washes over him like a huge wave. Does Hide have a wound that he’d overlooked? Did he get hurt to such a degree that even his regeneration can’t heal?

“Hide-“ he starts to say, but he trails off when Hide lets out a small chuckle, his voice laced with embarrassment.

“Ah, man – sorry, sorry,” Hide apologizes, not moving from his position. Something in Haise demands that they shouldn’t let their guard down just yet, but a bigger part of him insists that they can afford it; just for a short while. His adrenaline is starting to fade – he’s simply too worn out to argue with himself about that.

“You okay?” Haise asks despite knowing full well of the answer he’ll receive. He lets out a breathless laugh when Hide replies with a silent nod. He might not have fought as long as the others, but Hide’s mental drain possibly far exceeds the rest of them. All those effort needed to figure out whatever’s going on, to help devise on a countermeasure; all that anxiety towards the effectiveness of a plan that barely had a fifty-fifty chance of success rate and towards having to face the worst case scenario of burying everyone, including himself, underground – it’s understandable that Hide’s exhausted as well.

Haise tenses when a voice buzzes into his earpiece, his heartbeat speeding up in a strange mixture of apprehension and tentative anticipation. Judging by the way Hide stiffens and fixes his posture at the exact same moment, he must be receiving the message, too. Haise holds his breath as he listens on, bracing himself for whatever he’s going to hear.

The aboveground factions have reported to be currently engaged in battles with four ghouls who’d exited from the openings that they’ve been led to use, and the CCG is at the advantage. Haise doesn’t dare exhale just yet. There were five of them who escaped. One has not yet emerged, therefore those underground should still be on standby in the case of-

It happens in the span of roughly three seconds. Haise hears an urgent call of his name before he’s shoved roughly aside. Droplets of blood splatters across his cheek when he twists to look, his thoughts completely blank. The first thing he registers is the alarm written all over Hide’s face. Something’s wrong, something’s very, very wrong. Haise gulps, and forces his sight lower.

Protruding right in the middle of Hide’s chest, looking extremely out of place as it should be, is a the tip of a blood red kagune.

Haise’s numb. He’s numb even when someone else shouts something at him and Hide’s flung aside like he’s merely a speck of dust on someone’s hand. He’s numb even when more shouts fill the air; stunned exclamations mingled with orders barked over the chaos.

And then he only hears his own voice.

And he doesn’t remember anything else.

Chapter Text

At one point, Haise knows he’d passed out.

He isn’t sure how he’s so certain about that, but he is. It feels as if his consciousness is drifting in a void; not asleep, but not fully awake, either. And it stays like that for quite a while.

He doesn’t know how long has passed when he finally reaches the brink of awareness. He senses himself about to wake up; he could almost see the light on the other side of his eyelids and hear the sounds of the environment around him – but he’s unable to go any further than that. He lingers right at the very edge of waking, struggling and struggling to break through the surface of his slumber. Why isn’t he waking up? Why can’t he wake up?

Haise tries, over and over and over. And each time, the results remain the same; always so close, but never close enough. Eventually, Haise tires, and he stops. Maybe he’s dead after all, he thinks as he lets himself sink back to the dark depths of oblivion. Maybe this is how death actually feels like. He remembers going berserk in the operation, and he’s probably finally seen as enough of a threat to be exterminated.

Somehow, he isn’t surprised when the visions started coming. The scene keeps replaying over and over like a broken tape; Hide’s face after being impaled through the chest, the front of his dark shirt turning darker at an alarming rate from the blood seeping out the gaping hole. Every single time, Haise wills himself to turn around just a few seconds faster, to do something – push him off course, act before they’re attacked, anything at all – before Hide’s hurt. Before he loses his most important person.

Again and again and again.

He doesn’t succeed, not even once. Even so, his despair refuses to fade no matter how many repeats he goes through. If anything, it only gets worse and worse. He’s only more convinced with every cycle. Not even a ghoul can necessarily survive wound of that size. Hide’s dead and it’s his fault. If only he’d been more alert, if only he’d refrained from letting his guard down even when he knew he shouldn’t – Hide wouldn’t have had to protect him and things wouldn’t have ended up like this.

It’s his fault.

Maybe it’s better if he doesn’t wake up again after all. At least that way, he won’t have to hurt anyone precious to him anymore. At least that way, his precious people won’t be hurt because of him anymore. At least that way, he won’t have to face the crushing reality of it all.

He’s a coward. An utterly selfish coward who only knows how to run away. He knows that. And he also knows he can’t stay that way and that he still has to regain consciousness to continue living the life Hide had saved time and again regardless. There are still people who need him, goals he has to achieve. He can’t give up so soon, so easily.

But just a while, just a short while longer – just let him be selfish a little while longer.

Haise does not stir from his long sleep willingly; it’s more like he’s simply dragged back to the waking world without as much as a warning. He feels the outrageous weight of his limbs before he even opens his eyes. His mind feels extremely foggy, and it takes him a moment before he’s able to force himself to think. Summoning all his strength, he tries lifting his arm. No, he’s not tied down. The heaviness in his body must be due to sedatives.

He counts to five before slowly parting his eyelids, greeted by a sight of a place that’s too bright, with a ceiling too clean and too unfamiliar. The hospital? No, there’s no lingering smell of disinfectants that hospitals usually have. Something clicks in Haise’s mind. He’s woken up in a room similar to this before. He’s in a ward in the CCG’s medical facility.

But what are they thinking, letting a monster like him stay there without any restraints at all? Even his sedatives might wear off unexpectedly and there’s still a possibility that he might go crazy the minute he wakes up and he might endanger other people and-

“Kaneki..?”

Haise freezes, his heart instantly ceasing to beat. That voice.. no, it can’t be. It must be his sedatives messing with his brain or he’s still more asleep than awake or something. It’s not him. Because it’s impossible. Every shred of logic he has tells him that there’s no way it’s true, that Hide’s dead and he’s just delusional and giving himself false hopes before he’s crushed with disappointment.

“Kaneki?” the voice speaks again and gosh it sounds so soft and gentle and real that Haise feels a sob building in his throat. “Hey, can you hear me?”

And it sounds like he’s right next to him.

It’s not possible. Haise knows deep in his heart that it’s not.

But very slowly, he turns to look anyway.

The air around them is perfectly still when their gazes meet, the silence in the room growing heavier by the second. Apart from the lines of exhaustion around his eyes that aren’t as prominent before, Hide looks completely fine; sporting not even a single piece of bandage over his visible skin. Despite hearing him breathe, despite seeing the vivid change in his expression when he notices him awake, Haise still can’t bring himself to believe, still can’t convince himself that he’s-

“Hide..?”

For a few seconds, Hide seems frozen. Haise’s pulse begins pounding in his ears. He couldn’t be dreaming, could he? He’s only been seeing the same thing for so long – his dreams wouldn’t change to show him this now of all times, would they? It shouldn’t be a dream. It shouldn’t, it shouldn’t, it shouldn’t-

Just when Haise’s about to enter a breakdown, Hide smiles; his features lighting up the way Haise has always adored since the very first day they met as children, the way that always makes a blossom of warmth bloom in his chest and there’s no doubt about it now. He’s here, he’s not a hallucination.

And by some miracle Haise doesn’t know existed, he’s alive.

“The one and only.” Hide’s voice is every bit as hoarse as his when he speaks. Haise doesn’t register his own tears until Hide brushes his fingers over the corner of his eyes, letting out a small laugh as he does so. His skin is warm, his touch solid. “You really are happy to see me, aren’t you?”

“You’re alive,” Haise marvels, not caring one bit that he’s stating a blatant fact. And he’s alive, he’s alive, Hide’s alive, he repeats almost giddily in his mind, trying and trying to erase the bits of doubt his subconscious insists on harboring. He’s here; breathing, moving, speaking.

“Honestly, I thought I was a goner too, with that wound,” Hide confesses sheepishly, shrugging. “I was sure my lungs were all messed up, but apparently the guy just narrowly missed my heart, and I guess I won’t die easily as long as it can still beat? I don’t know.” He reaches to scratch the back of his head, letting out another soft chuckle. “Also, I think I understand now; why ghouls prefer human meat to normal food. We do have a springier texture to our flesh besides tasting suspiciously like grilled bacon, haha.”

Haise stares at him, still so caught up in processing the turn of events that it takes him a full minute to let the meaning of Hide’s words sink in. And when it does, the realization hits him so hard that his brain completely blanks out. Wait, don’t tell him-

“I ate human meat,” Hide affirms before he could ask, his tone difficult to read. Suddenly, it dawns Haise that the reason why he thought he looks a little different isn’t just because of the weariness showing on his face. Something else has changed; the waning humor in his eyes, the air he carries around him. “I wouldn’t be here otherwise, Kaneki. It was the only thing I could come up with in order not to die.”

Somewhere at the back of his mind, Haise recalls Hide telling him something about how his body would eat itself up when his RC levels fall below a certain amount. Such major regeneration would use up his reserves, no doubt. Haise could imagine perfectly; the feeling akin to hellfire burning across a huge wound that’s desperately trying to heal itself but could not. He could imagine why Hide would result to what he’d done in order to stay alive.

And it does not upset him any less.

Wordlessly, Haise wills his hand to move, Hide helping him guide it to press his palm snug against his cheek with a soft sigh. Haise stays silent even though there are still a thousand questions he’s bursting to ask, allowing himself to simply savor the fact that they’re both still here – still okay – for the time being. They’re a little worse for wear, but they’re okay.

Haise hadn’t meant to jolt so violently when the thought hits him. No – how could he forget them? At his first sign of distraught, Hide immediately shoots him a worried stare, lowering his hand away from the side of his face and tightening his grip on it by a fraction.

The kids,” Haise says in a breathless mutter. Then realizing how painfully soft he’d been, he repeats, “What about the kids? Where-“

He trails off when Hide makes a sudden sound and exhales a long breath, his shoulders slouching as the tension drains from them. Haise watches him in growing confusion.

“I guess you can’t exactly see them from your position, huh?” Hide muses aloud, and before Haise’s able to say anything to that, he adds – addressing him directly this time, “Do you think you can sit up, Kaneki?”

Haise’s still pretty much failing to compute, but he somehow manages to nod. Hide smiles and stands up, releasing his hand before bending over to slip one arm behind his back and the other under his thighs. He waits for Haise to bend his own arms and brace his hands against the mattress before beginning a count to three. At the last count, he inhales sharply, and with a soft groan of effort, he helps Haise shift into a sitting position, propping up his pillow to let him lean on afterwards.

Haise gazes straight ahead across the room once he’s settled down, taking in the sight of the group of teenagers gathered there. Even though the sun is still up as far as Haise can see, the Quinx are all fast asleep. Saiko has the only sofa all to herself, snuggled comfortably under a blanket which Haise recognizes as her own from the chateau. The others are cocooned in blankets as well, but they’re using those provided by the facility. Mutsuki occupies a comfortable corner, while Shirazu’s sprawled across the floor on the spot in front of the sofa. Even Urie’s there, traces of his irritation lingering across his sleeping face – possibly because his legs are within Shirazu’s kicking range.

“They didn’t let us see you until yesterday, you know,” Hide straightens and explains while Haise still struggles to overcome his stupor. “The kids were worried sick about you after hearing about what happened underground. Believe it or not, they went as far as threatening the staff into letting them stay until you wake up once they got in. ‘We have the right as Maman’s children,’ Saiko-chan even said.” Hide chuckles, fondness coloring his tone. The hint of affection remains in his voice even after his mirth fades and he continues a little more somberly, “I guess you’re wondering why you weren’t killed, huh?”

 “I completely lost control in the end,” Haise glances away and states, self-loathing bubbling up his middle at the truthfulness of every word that leaves his mouth. From the corner of his eye, he sees Hide moving to settle down again on the chair he’d been using even before he awoke. From the looks of it, it couldn’t have been all that comfortable to sit on all day.

“I blacked out for a bit after being thrown aside so I can’t tell you what exactly happened right after that,” Hide starts even though Haise hasn’t really answered him the first time. Haise doesn’t know what compelled him, but reluctantly, he returns his gaze to him. “The first thing I noticed when I looked around after regaining consciousness was that everyone had cleared away from the area around you. I saw that your kagune were lashing everywhere, but-“ he emphasizes the last word before Haise could avert his eyes once more, “- you weren’t attacking anyone, Kaneki. You weren’t even moving – and from what I heard after everything was over, you just curled up on the ground with your head in your hands like you were desperately trying to shut everything out.” Hide stops just when his voice starts quavering, pressing his lips together as he takes a shaky breath. He reaches to tuck of lock of Haise’s hair behind his ear, his fingers trembling over so slightly. “I’m so sorry, Kaneki. I must’ve really scared you then.”

Who was he kidding? Of course he did. Not everyone could’ve gotten skewered right through the chest and live to tell the tale. Even so, Haise only shakes his head, hating how guilty he looks even when there’s nothing for him to blame himself for .

“All that matters is that you’re still here,” he grasps his hand and tells him, willing every bit of his earnestness to get through. “We both are. And just like so many times before, you saved me.” He pauses, and unexpectedly, he manages a tiny smile. “I don’t think it’s ever close to enough, but thank you, Hide.”

“Aw, you’re giving me way too much credit,” Hide protests, tentatively letting a bit of his usual playfulness return. Haise’s so relieved to catch a glimpse of that part of him again that he actually laughs, and eventually, Hide joins in as well. Haise’s sure there’s nothing worth laughing about, really, but he supposes it’s just so unbelievable that they’re all still here, still safe and sound despite everything that’d happened and they just can’t find any other way to react to that.

That’s right. They’re still here.

“What’s going to happen now?” Haise finds himself asking a little later, breaking the lapse of silence that’d settled over them once they’ve calmed down. It’s a silly inquiry, he knows. It’s always the same after every huge operation; they fight, they survive, they return to their daily lives the day after and try to forget the horrors they’d experienced. Still, he gets the feeling that things will be a little different this time. They’ve got their own goals to achieve now; personal objectives to work towards. They’ll have tougher challenges to face in the future, more hurdles thrown their way.  

But.. it’ll be alright. They won’t fall easily – not after everything they’ve been through. Besides, they’ve got one another to count on for support. Haise knows they’ll be fine, somehow.

“Isn’t that obvious?” Hide demands, shooting Haise such an exaggerated look that he can’t help letting another smile tug at his lips. He spreads his arms, his frown rapidly morphing into a wide grin. “We’re going home! All of us together.”

And for now, that’s everything Haise could ever ask for.